The First Amendment grants Americans the right to practice their religion free from government interference. With the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress extended religious freedom to the workplace by making it illegal for employers to discriminate against job applicants and employees based on their religious affiliations or beliefs. In doing so, Congress recognized that religious freedom in the workplace is as important to most believers as freedom from government restrictions on religion. Most Americans will never feel the weight of the government impacting their religious lives, but most people need a job.
The Prevalence of Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
Although Title VII has existed now for nearly a century, religious discrimination remains prevalent in the workplace. The annual number of religious discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC has more than doubled since 1997, even as America has become far more religiously diverse over the years.
The Harmful Consequences of Employment Discrimination
Employment discrimination poses a real and significant harm to the people discriminated against and to our society as a whole. Victims of workplace bias often feel frustrated and humiliated. These feelings can harm the employee’s psychological wellbeing by causing depression and anxiety. Employers that tolerate discriminatory behavior in the workplace are often less productive, have higher employee absenteeism, and experience higher employee turnover—all of which are economically costly to the community.
The Law Prohibits Employment Discrimination Based on Religion
Both Title VII and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) prohibit employers from treating employees unfavorably because of their religion or the religious beliefs of their spouse, friends, or family members (known as “disparate treatment”). Additionally, both Title VII and the TCHRA prohibit employment practices that are not intended to discriminate, but in fact have a disproportionately adverse effect on members of a particular religion (known as “disparate impact”). These rights extend to job applicants as well.
Importantly, the law requires that employers “reasonably accommodate” a job applicant or employee’s religious observances and practices at work. An applicant or employee who needs a religious accommodation at work must inform their employer of their need and explain how the religious practice at issue conflicts with work in some way. They must also explain to their employer the religious nature of the practice or observance at issue and cannot assume that the employer will already know or understand it.
Take, for example, a clothing store with a dress code that prohibits employees from wearing hats and other head covers at work. A Muslim woman who works for the clothing store as a sales clerk may wish to wear a head cover while at work for religious reasons. The sales clerk must inform let her boss know that she is Muslim and needs to wear a head cover at work for religious reasons. The sales clerk should point out that their employer’s dress code prohibits employees from wearing a head cover at work, and ask that her employer make an exception to the dress code so that she may wear one at work for religious reasons. Unless granting the sales clerk’s request will cause the employer to suffer an “undue hardship,” the employer must accommodate her request by allowing her to wear a head cover at work for religious reasons.
Common Examples of Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
The following are just a few examples of unlawful employment discrimination based on religion:
- Discriminatory Employment Decisions Based on Religion: Examples of discriminatory employment decisions based on religion include an employer’s refusal to hire an otherwise qualified applicant because he described himself as an evangelical Christian during his interview; a supervisor’s denial of a promotion to a qualified non-Jewish employee because the supervisor preferred to give the promotion to someone who is Jewish; and an employer’s decision to fire an employee because her religious beliefs made her supervisor and certain coworkers feel uncomfortable.
- Dress Codes That Restrict Religious Clothing or Jewelry: Many Muslim women believe that the Quran requires or at least encourages them to cover their heads in public. Sikhs are similarly required to wear turbans. Many members of the Jewish faith wear head coverings such as hats or yarmulkes. Many Pentecostal women wear head coverings. Christians of all denominations wear various forms of religious jewelry such as crosses or crucifixes, religious medals, and evangelistic messages. Many Muslim, Pentecostal, and Orthodox Jewish women observe a religious prohibition against wearing pants or short skirts. The law requires that employers reasonably accommodate such forms of religious dress in the workplace. If an employer adopts a dress code that unreasonably restricts an employee from wearing religious clothing or jewelry at work, the employee may have a claim for religious discrimination.
- Workplace Restrictions on Religious Grooming and Appearance: Examples of religious practices that involve grooming and appearance include Orthodox Jewish men who wear side locks; members of the Hindu faith who wear a religious forehead marking; Rastafarians who grow their hair long and coil it into dreadlocks; Sikh men who maintain uncut hair, including beards; and Pentecostal women who do not cut their hair and wear head coverings. The law requires that employers reasonably accommodate religious practices that involve grooming and appearance. If an employer unreasonably restricts such practices, the employees who are affected by the restriction may have a claim for religious discrimination.
- Conflicts Between Work Schedule and Sabbath or Holy Day Observances: Sabbath and holy day observances frequently conflict with an employer’s work schedule. For example, Seventh-day Adventists, observant Jews, and Seventh Day Baptists all observe Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Other Christian groups hold similar beliefs on Sunday observance. Many Jews, Muslims, Christians, and members of other faiths also observe holy days that sometimes occur during the business week. The law requires that employers reasonably accommodate an employee’s observance of the Sabbath, “holy days,” and religious holidays.
In addition to the specific examples described above, you may have a claim for religious discrimination if you have experienced some other type of adverse employment action or decision because of your religion. This includes an employer’s action or decision related to:
- work assignments,
- employee discipline,
- training and instruction,
- recruitment, and
- any other term or condition of employment.
There are a wide variety of actions that may qualify as an adverse employment action or decision. If you’re unsure whether you have experienced an adverse employment action based on your religion, contact the Wagoner Law Firm today for a free case evaluation.
When to Speak to an Employment Lawyer About Religious Discrimination
If you believe that you have been discriminated against on the basis of your religion, it’s imperative that you take action immediately. Keep detailed notes and records of the actions taken by your employer, the individuals involved, dates, times, places, conversations, and any other relevant details. Having detailed notes, copies of relevant emails and documents, and records of the events that transpired at work may help your attorney or the EEOC investigate your claim down the road.
Having an experienced employment lawyer on your side may relieve stress and help you achieve the best outcome possible in your case. A knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyer may help you in a variety of ways, including advising you on your rights, helping you prepare your EEOC complaint in a manner that preserves your rights, ensuring that your filing deadlines are met, investigating and collecting the evidence you will need to prove your claims, and representing you in a lawsuit.
Because of the complicated administrative process, short filing deadlines, and complex web of employment laws that might apply to your case, victims of employment discrimination should contact the Wagoner Law Firm without delay for a free case evaluation.