In the U.S., freedom of religion is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is a fundamental right that informed the foundation of the nation. Many early settlers fled Europe for North America to escape religious persecution, and the founders believed that protecting the freedom of religion was essential. When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written, discrimination based on religion was included as one of the prohibited forms of workplace, housing, and educational discrimination. This law prohibits discrimination by state and local governments, educational institutions, and private employers based on religion. The states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, similarly have anti-discrimination laws that prohibit religious discrimination. In some cases, state labor laws provide more rights to employees than the federal anti-discrimination laws. The attorneys at Swartz Swidler can explain the rights that you have against religious discrimination under both the state and federal laws.
Who does Title VII protect from religious discrimination?
Title VII covers all federal, local, and state governmental employers. It also applies to private employers that have 15 or more employees. Labor organizations and employment agencies are also covered by Title VII. You are protected against religious discrimination if you work for an employer that is covered by Title VII. You are similarly protected if you apply for a job with a covered employer. In New Jersey, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination applies to all employers, including small employers with fewer than 15 employees.
What is considered to be a religion?
Applicants and employees are protected against religious discrimination based on their religious practices and beliefs. Employers also are prohibited from discriminating against workers based on their lack of beliefs. This means that employers cannot refuse to hire applicants who are not members of specific religions or applicants who are atheists or agnostics.
Workers do not have to be members of organized religions to be protected against religious discrimination. The qualifying factor is that a worker’s beliefs must be sincerely held and religious.
What are religious beliefs?
A belief is considered to be religious if it takes the place of religion in a worker’s view of life. It has to be meaningful and concern ideas of purpose, death, and life. It must fill a similar place in the believer’s mind as the place that is filled by God in traditional religion.
This means that employees do not have to belong to mainstream religions for the protection against religious discrimination to apply. They can belong to small groups or sects and enjoy protection. Employees are also protected when they claim to follow a specific religion but have beliefs that diverge from it. For example, if you are a progressive Catholic who believes in the equality of LGBTQ+ people and abortion rights, you are still protected in your beliefs even though they may not conform to traditional Catholic norms.
Beliefs that are important to you that are deeply held are not always considered to be religious beliefs. For example, your political, social, or economic beliefs might be important to you. However, they will not generally be considered to be religious and subject to the prohibitions against religious discrimination. Your motivation in holding the belief is what will determine whether your belief is considered to be religious. For example, a person might wear a covering on her head because of her religious belief in the importance of modesty while another woman might wear a covering on her head because of fashion preferences. While the first example is religious, the second example is not.
Beliefs that are sincerely held
Employers are only required to provide accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs when the beliefs are sincerely held. In most cases, people will not dispute whether a worker’s religious beliefs are sincerely held. When an issue does arise, the dispute typically involves an employee who requests an exception to the company’s normal rules. For example, an employer might have a dress code prohibiting visible tattoos and have an employee claim that the tattoos are a part of their religion. If the employer thinks that the employee is simply claiming that the employee is trying to get around the rules instead of acting based on a real religious belief, the employer might dispute the employee’s claim.
The determination of whether a belief is a sincerely held religious belief is made on a case-by-case basis. The courts take all of the circumstances and facts into consideration. There are several factors that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that might indicate when a belief is not sincerely held, including the following:
- Whether the employee acts in a way that is inconsistent with his or her belief
- Whether the employee is trying to secure a benefit that is likelier for secular purposes
- Whether there is a reason to suspect the request’s timing
- Whether there are other reasons for the employer to believe that the worker is asking for the benefit for secular reasons
Types of religious discrimination
Employers are forbidden from discriminating against an applicant or employee based on his or her sincerely held religious beliefs. Employers are also forbidden from harassing workers and applicants based on their religions. Finally, employers must provide requested, reasonable accommodations to workers for their religious beliefs.
Employers cannot make adverse job decisions based on the religion of an employee or applicant. For example, employers cannot refuse to hire members of specific religious groups or give promotions only to members of other groups. The prohibition against religious discrimination applies to all aspects of employment from hiring to firing. They also cannot discriminate against employees because they are not religious. Employers cannot refuse to hire people who do not share the religious beliefs of the employers. Employers cannot base their job decisions on religion whether they agree or disagree with the beliefs of their employees. For example, a company that only promotes Catholics while denying promotions to members of other religions is engaging in prohibited religious discrimination.
Harassment based on religion
Harassment includes any unwelcome conduct that is pervasive and severe enough that a hostile work environment is created. Harassment generally does not include single instances but is instead something ongoing. For example, if a person’s coworkers are allowed to make cruel remarks about the religious beliefs of the person repeatedly, that could constitute harassment based on the person’s religion. However, it must be pervasive enough that a reasonable person in the shoes of the victim would have trouble performing the tasks of his or her job because of the harassing conduct.
Failing to provide reasonable accommodations
When an employee requests accommodations from their employers because of his or her sincerely held religious beliefs, employers will be required to provide them as long as they are reasonable and will not cause an undue financial hardship on the employer’s business. While this might seem to be at odds with the prohibition against employers considering the protected characteristics of their workers when making employment decisions, religion is not the same type of characteristic as a person’s race or gender. Instead, religion is a set of beliefs and practices. Some religions require their adherents to express their beliefs by refraining from or doing certain things. For example, a person might refuse to cut his or her hair, wear religious items, or wear specific types of clothing as an expression of his or her faith. Employers must accommodate these types of expressions as long as they do not present an undue hardship.
Do you have a claim for workplace religious discrimination?
To determine whether you might have a claim for religious discrimination at your job, you will need to start by identifying the type of discrimination that has occurred. Some examples of when religious discrimination might come into play at the workplace include the following decisions and job actions:
- Religious considerations when hiring or firing employees
- Religious considerations in determining compensation levels, assignments, or job classifications
- Religious considerations when transferring, promoting, or laying off workers
- Religious considerations as a basis for testing, harassing, or recruiting workers
Requirements for employers regarding religious discrimination
Once the act of religious discrimination is identified, the next step is to determine what is required of employers by Title VII. If the claimed discrimination is based on the refusal of an employer to accommodate a worker, the reasonableness of the accommodation must be evaluated. Under Title VII, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious practices unless doing so would place undue hardships on the employers. To make this determination, courts use a balancing test to compare the reasonableness of the request with the hardship that it would cause to comply with it.
A court will begin by assessing the reasonableness of the employer’s actions. For example, a company was found to have been unreasonable when it refused an employee’s request to wear a head covering during Ramadan. The court was unable to find that the request created an undue hardship on the employer to grant the employee’s request. Courts have also found that it was unreasonable to deny a request for an area and time to pray.
Filing a charge for religious discrimination at work with the EEOC
If you believe that you were the victim of religious discrimination at work, you can file a discrimination charge with the EEOC. The EEOC generally mandates that you have to file your charge within 180 days of when the discrimination occurred. After you file a charge, the EEOC will notify your employer and will investigate whether a discrimination claim is warranted. You can settle your charge with your employer at any time.
If the EEOC finds that there are sufficient grounds for your discrimination charge, it may file a claim against your employer in court. In some cases, the EEOC will decline to file a claim and will send you a notice of your right to sue your employer. If you receive a right to sue letter, you will have 90 days to file your civil complaint against your employer.
Get help from Swartz Swidler
If you believe that you have been the victim of workplace religious discrimination, you may have grounds to file a charge with the EEOC. The attorneys at Swartz Swidler can review the circumstances and facts of what occurred and provide you with an honest assessment of the legal merits of your case. If your claim has merits, the lawyers may help you to gather documents and evidence to submit with your discrimination charge. If the EEOC sends you a notice of your right to sue, the attorneys may file a complaint against your employer in federal court. Contact us today to learn more about your rights by calling us at 856.685.7420.