Religious Discrimination

Shalie Reich
Shalie Reich

Table of Contents

Discrimination in any form will haunt you as an HR professional. It’s even more terrifying when it comes to something like religion that is not black and white. Keep reading to see how to protect your organization against religious discrimination and ensure your employees are able to enjoy their religious freedoms.

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What Is Religious Discrimination?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) qualifies religious discrimination as treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. You will learn more about how this plays out in your workplace through this article, but it is important to note that it is illegal to harass a person because of his or her religion. Your organization should take the necessary steps to ensure this discrimination is not taking place in your company.

What Is Considered a Religion?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, religion is defined as: “The service and worship of God or the supernatural; commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; a cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” For workplace purposes, you should consider religion as a collection of beliefs that are sacred to one or more employees and approach all religions the same. Let’s look at some characteristics that can help define this more specifically.

  • Belief in supernatural beings. One of the most obvious characteristics of any religion is the belief in a higher power or the supernatural.
  • Sacred objects, places, and times. Standardly, religions have notable places and times to observe as well as objects that may be required to participate in such events.
  • Rituals. A major component of any religious group is rituals. These unite members with each other and with their higher power, descendants, or whomever they are paying their respects to.
  • Moral code. Most religions include a basic set of morals in their teachings that give people direction and a road map for behavior in life.
  • Prayer or other forms of communication. A prayer is a common form of communication in religion, but each religious group can specify this in its own way.

Laws Regarding Religious Discrimination

There are laws against religious discrimination at both the federal and state levels. Your organization should review the laws specific to your state as they can sometimes be more comprehensive than those at the federal level. Let’s review what this looks like:

Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is a federal law that protects individuals from discrimination based on religion. It keeps employers from religious discrimination in regard to hiring, firing, promotions, raises, and any other conditions of employment. Title VII also ensures that employers make reasonable accommodations regarding the religious practices of employees in their work. You will learn more about this in the “how-to” section below. Title VII covers all private employers, state and local governments, educational institutions that have 15 or more individuals, private and public employment agencies, and labor organizations. Even if Title VII doesn’t apply to your organization, it would be beneficial to respect the law and not discriminate based on religion.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)

Under the protection of the 1993 congressional Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Federal Government cannot pass any law that restricts religious freedom. This law should be considered when attempting to avoid religious discrimination in order to protect the religious freedoms of your employees.

Individual State Laws

Additionally, there are currently 10 states that have their own version of the RFRA: Alaska, Hawaii, Ohio, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Washington and Wisconsin. 21 states have enacted more comprehensive versions of the RFRA: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. If your organization operates in one of these states, you should review the comprehensive religious laws for your state specifically.

Types of Religious Discrimination

Now that you have a better understanding of what characterizes religion and the laws protecting against religious discrimination, let’s review specific types of religious discrimination your organization could experience.

Unjust Dismissal

Unjust dismissal is a very clear form of direct religious discrimination. Making a hiring or firing decision because of an employee’s religious background is strictly prohibited in accordance with Title VII. For example, your organization cannot fire an employee for taking a day off to observe a religious event. A discussion and accommodation would need to be made for this employee to allow them to practice their religion while still being employed by your organization.

Promotion Hindrance

If an employee requires a religious accommodation for their work and you take this into account when evaluating them for a promotion, this can be seen as religious discrimination. When evaluating employees for promotions, review each individual’s work and qualifications rather than any bias you may have about accommodations that have been made.

Unjust Compensation

All compensation for your employees should be based on your company’s standard pay scale. Should this differ from employee to employee without differing merit or experience, this can be seen as discrimination. If you hire one employee at one pay level and a similarly qualified employee of another religion at a lower pay level, you are opening yourself up to a religious discrimination dispute.

Physical or Verbal Harassment

Acts of bullying or hate crimes against someone at work because of religion is a very clear form of discrimination and harassment. These can range from offensive comments that make an employee feel uncomfortable to physically hurting an employee due to their religion.

Prohibiting Religious Observance Times

A great example of indirect religious discrimination prohibiting time for religious observance. If you are creating work schedules that are unfair or hinder specific employees from taking time off for religious observance, that would be considered religious discrimination. Be sure to allow flexibility in scheduling to allow for religious days for your employees. Be open to discussions on how to continue supporting your employees and organization with flexibility and accommodation.

How To Handle a Situation with Religious Discrimination at Work

In order to provide a safe working environment for all employees, religious discrimination should not be tolerated in your organization. Let’s review how you can ensure the religious freedoms and safety of your employees.

No Tolerance Policies

As an organization, be specific on your verbiage for your religious discrimination policies. Be very direct in stating that your company will not allow religious discrimination of any kind for any reason. A no-tolerance policy should specify what happens if there is discrimination. This could be that your organization will immediately dismiss an employee who violates the policy, or a graded approach with warnings. Regardless, the policy should be clear and the same for all locations and employees.

Training

Once you have a policy in place, there needs to be training, preferably quarterly or twice a year, to ensure all employees understand and respect the policy. Trainings can include discrimination videos, reviewing any updates to the policy and signature acceptance from each employee that they understand and agree to abide by the policy. It would be wise to include discussion and training in your new hire orientation as well to ensure that all new employees recognize the importance of religious freedoms in your organization.

Reasonable Accommodation

As with all situations that require accommodation, your organization should evaluate religious accommodations with openness and flexibility. Provided the accommodation does not cause undue hardship to the employer, as outlined in Title VII, you are required to listen, create a plan, and discuss the plan with the employee requesting religious accommodation. A few examples of these could be flexible scheduling, job reassignments, modifications to the workplace, or specific grooming or dress code requirements. Each request should be evaluated as you would any other accommodation request.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Religious Discrimination

If a specific article of clothing or dress code is required for your employee’s religion, then a request for accommodation should be made. As long as the dress code request does not cause your organization undue hardship, religion is a valid reason to bend the dress code policy.
Yes, an employer can base objectives on religious principles, but they must be very intentional to use them only to help convey a business objective and nothing more. Forcing an employee to take religious training would be considered religious discrimination.
No, Title VII (https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/civil-rights-center/internal/policies/religious-discrimination-accommodation#:~:text=the%20Federal%20Workplace-,Religious%20Discrimination%20and%20Accommodation%20in%20the%20Federal%20Workplace,terms%20and%20conditions%20of%20employment) protects an employee from this.
No. In this case, a religious accommodation should be made for the employee. Accommodation should be agreed upon for the employee so the employer does not discriminate because of the employee’s day of worship.
Shalie Reich
Shalie Reich

Shalie has over 4 years of experience working in a variety of HR positions and organizations including: working as an HR department “of one”, working with a start-up based in Europe, to working in a fully established robust USA based HR department. Shalie has experience in multiple states and countries with all aspects of the HR spectrum. She has a passion to share her knowledge and experience to benefit the HR profession!

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