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Avoid Religious Discrimination in Your Workplace

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law which prohibits employers (with at least 15 employees) from discriminating in the workplace based on such issues as religion.

Title VII specifically forbids companies from any of the following actions concerning religion in the workplace:

  • failing to hire or promote applicants or employees in a discriminatory fashion based on their religious beliefs or practices in any area of employment;
  • bullying or harassing employees because of their religious beliefs or practices;
  • turning down a requested reasonable accommodation (of an employee's religious beliefs) if the requested accommodation will not result in more than a de minimis cost on the employer; and,
  • retaliating against an employee who has engaged in protected religious activity.

What is "religion" under Title VII?: Title VII (Federal law) protects all aspects of religious observance and practice (and defines religion very broadly for purposes of determining what the federal law covers). For purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, or not part of a formal church or sect.

Title VII's legal protections also cover those employees in the workplace who are discriminated against (or need accommodation) because they have no religious beliefs at all.

Religious observances can include attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, putting religious objects in the work area, following certain dietary rules, etc.

Examples of discrimination based on religion: Discrimination based on religion within the meaning of Title VII could include, for example: not hiring an applicant because he is a Muslim; a Jewish supervisor not hiring a qualified non-Jewish employee because the supervisor prefers (based on religion) a fellow Jewish employee; or, firing an employee because he wants to wear religious symbols or special religious clothing.

Similarly, requests for accommodation of a "religious" belief or practice could include, for example: an Amish employee requesting a schedule change so that he can attend church services on a special religious holiday; a Muslim employee requesting an exception to the company's dress code so she can wear her headscarf, or a Hindu employee requesting to wear her bindi (religious forehead marking); an atheist asking not to participate in the religious prayer offered at the beginning of company meetings; or an employee who asks for an accommodation of his religious belief where he cannot work on Saturdays.

What Employers Can't Do:

  • Employers may not refuse to recruit, hire, or promote individuals of a certain religion, impose stricter promotion requirements for persons of a certain religion, or impose more or different work requirements on an employee because of that employee's religious beliefs or practices.
  • Employers may not refuse to hire an applicant simply because he does not share the employer's religious beliefs, and conversely may not select one applicant over another based on a preference for employees of a particular religion.
  • Employment agencies may not go along with requests from employers to engage in discriminatory recruitment or referral practices, for example by screening out applicants who have names often associated with a particular religion ( eg., Mohammed).

Reasonable Accommodation: Employer-employee cooperation and flexibility are key to the reasonable accommodation interactive process. If the accommodation solution cannot be thought of immediately, the employer should talk over the request with the employee (and brainstorm about what accommodations might be effective).

If the employer requests additional information reasonably needed to evaluate the request, the employee should cooperate and provide it. For example, if an employee has requested a schedule change to accommodate daily prayers, the employer may need to ask for information about the religious observance, such as time and duration of the daily prayers, in order to determine whether accommodation can be granted without posing an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business.

If an employee needs to use part of the workplace facility as a reasonable accommodation (for example use of a quiet area in the workplace for prayer during break time), the employer should try to accommodate the request under Title VII unless it would pose an undue hardship. If the employer allows employees to use the facilities at issue for non-religious activities not related to work, it may be legally high risk for the employer to demonstrate that allowing the facilities to be used for religious activities is not a reasonable accommodation. However, the employer is not required to give actual precedence to the use of the facility for religious reasons (over use for a legitimate business purpose).

Examples of Reasonable Accommodation: Some private employers choose to express their own religious beliefs or practices in the workplace, and they are entitled to do so. However, if an employer holds religious services or programs or includes prayer in business meetings, Title VII requires that the employer accommodate an employee who asks to be excused for religious reasons, absent a showing of undue hardship (hard to show).

Similarly, an employer is required to excuse an employee from compulsory personal or professional development training that conflicts with the employee's sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.

Policy Addressing Religious Harassment: Employers should have a well-publicized and consistently applied anti-harassment policy that: (1) covers religious harassment; (2) clearly explains what is prohibited; (3) describes procedures for bringing harassment to management's attention; and, (4) contains an assurance that complainants will be protected by the employer against retaliation. The procedures should include a complaint mechanism that includes multiple avenues for complaint; prompt investigations; and prompt corrective action.

Training: Employers should annually train managers and supervisors on how to recognize and respond to religious accommodation requests from employees.

For assistance with employment issues involving religion and religious accommodation, contact Attorney Nancy E. Joerg who can be reached at Wessels Sherman's St. Charles, Illinois office: (630) 377-1554 or email her at najoerg@wesselssherman.com.

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