Religious discrimination in the workplace continues to rise in New Jersey and around the country. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, reports of employment-based religious-discrimination are sky rocketing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reported a surge of wide-ranging employee claims of religious discrimination as expressions of faith have grown more diverse. The EEOC defines religious-discrimination as “treating a person (applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religious … but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs. Religious discrimination can also involve treating someone differently because that person is married to (or associated with) an individual of a particular religion or because of his or her connection with a religious organization or group.”
One recent EEOC-filed lawsuit involves the Muslim drivers of a trucking company who objected to delivering alcohol who objected because of their faith. EEOC v. Star Transport Inc., filed on May 29, 2013, alleges that defendant Star Transport, Inc. a trucking company based out of Morton, Illinois, violated Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 of failing to accommodate the religious beliefs of two employees of Islamic faith, by terminating them for their refusal to deliver alcohol. Islam prohibits the making, transporting, importing/exporting, buying and selling, and consumption of alcohol. Prior to filing the lawsuit, an EEOC investigation revealed the company could have avoided assigning these employees without any undue hardship, but instead chose to force the issue. Swartz Swidler, LLC, employment attorneys based in New Jersey who litigate federal discrimination and wage and hour cases throughout the United States, filed a similar claim for a Muslim truck driver who was terminated after he sought an accommodation to not transport alcohol.
Similarly, In 2007, Muslim cab drivers in Minnesota claimed they were being discriminated against because of their religion because they were facing disciplinary action for refusing to violate their religious beliefs against transporting alcohol. Eventually, the Council on American-Islamic Relations stepped in to resolve the issue.
According to agency reports, the EEOC received more than 30,000 racial- and sexual-discrimination complaints in 2012. By comparison, religious-discrimination complaints only reached 3,811 for the same fiscal year. However, the agency believes religious-discrimination is under-reported, since “many people are afraid that reporting [discrimination] will negatively affect their career and others are unaware of their rights.” Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is illegal to fire, demote, harass, or otherwise “retaliate” against people because they filed a charge of discrimination, complained to their employer about discrimination on the job, or participated in an employment discrimination proceeding. New Jersey also forbids discrimination generally, and religious discrimination explicitly, under the state’s New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
Religious-discrimination complaints many times involve an employer failing to provide a religious accommodation to an employee. Under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC has specific guidelines on religious discrimination including work situations, harassment, segregation, reasonable accommodation, employment policies, and dress & grooming policies. Under the law, “an employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplaces safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employers, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.” However, employers may not retaliate against an employee for seeking a religious accommodation, and employers must recognize that not every hardship means that an accommodation need not be provided; instead, the accommodation must be undue. To determine if the accommodation request is undue, all the factual circumstances surrounding the request must be evaluated.
To this end, religious discrimination complaints include denying an accommodation where an employee needs off for the Sabbath, or denying a modification to dress code policy. In 2012, Wal-Mart agreed to pay $70,000 and train HR staff to settle an EEOC lawsuit alleging that an Assistant Manager of Mormon Faith was disciplined and threatened with termination after refusing to work on Sundays in order to observe Sabbath. On September 9, 2013, a federal judge found Abercrombie & Fitch responsible for religious-discrimination when it fired a Muslim employee for wearing her hijab (religious headscarf), as it violated their “Look Policy,” a company-wide dress code. The employee was told she would be taken off the schedule unless she removed the headscarf while at work. Abercombie ultimately was required to pay the employee $71,000. Similarly, Abercrombie & Fitch lost a similar matter in July 2011, when it discriminated against a Muslim applicant for a sales position due to her wearing a hijab. That case is currently pending appeal.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination imposes similar requirements to employers throughout the state of New Jersey. Similar to their rights under Title VII, employees in New Jersey have a right to seek religious accommodations under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Under the state law, an accommodation must be provided if it is for a sincerely held religious belief unless granting the accommodation would cause an “undue hardship.” The New Jersey law provides that an undue hardship exists when the “accommodation [would require] (1) unreasonable expense or difficulty; (2) unreasonable interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or a violation of a bona fide seniority system; or (3) a violation of any provision of a bona fide collective bargaining agreement.”
If you believe that you have been discriminated against because of your religion, you should contact an employment attorney right away. Swartz Swidler, LLC is a New Jersey employment law firm which represents employees on matters of wrongful termination, discrimination, and wage and hour disputes. Our New Jersey (NJ) employment attorneys have filed hundreds of discrimination claims based on religion, age, sex, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, and other protected characteristics. You can learn more about our practice, and can receive a free legal consultation, by calling us today to speak to one of our New Jersey employment lawyers.