What is religious discrimination?

Can your employer fire you because of your religion? Can your employer refuse to hire someone because he is Jewish, Muslim, or Christian?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. This means that an employer cannot subject an employee to an adverse employment action because of the employee’s religious beliefs or religious practices. Further, employers have a duty to make a reasonable accommodation for its employees’ religious belief and practices.

Religious Beliefs

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religious beliefs. Thus, an employer cannot fire an employee for refusing to drink because his Mormon religion prohibits it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines a religious belief as a moral or ethical belief as to what is right and wrong which is sincerely held. A religious belief is not limited to a traditional, established religion like Christianity or Islam. Even an employee’s choice not to hold a belief is protected—i.e. atheism.

For example, an employer cannot fire an employee because he converts to Judaism or follows the teachings of Buddha. Similarly, an employer cannot require his employees to attend Catholic Mass every Sunday.

Religious Practices

Title VII also prohibits employment discrimination based on religious practices. Religious practices are those practices or rituals that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief require him to do. So, attending mass for a Catholic or daily prayer for a Muslim would be religious practices. However, the practice does not have to stem from any particular religious organization.

It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on those practices. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee because she takes a break from work to conduct her daily prayer.

Further, employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees to carry out their religious practices.

Reasonable Accommodation

Not only does Title VII prohibit an employer from discriminating on the basis of religion, it also requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices if the accommodation would not create an undue hardship. The duty to accommodate was created to prevent employer policies that seem non-discriminatory but would still have a negative impact on employees with certain religious beliefs. For example, an employer policy that requires employees to work on the Sabbath would negatively impact Jewish employees. Thus, an employer must accommodate that employee by allowing him to not work on the Sabbath if it would not be an undue hardship.

If an employee notifies his employer that a job policy conflicts with his religious practice, the employer must offer to make an accommodation or accept a reasonable accommodation offered by the employee. While the employee is not required to make any suggestions, he must cooperate with his employer’s reasonable accommodation.

Common accommodations include work scheduling, religious clothing and grooming practices, and testing and screening. Take, for example, an employee who needs time off for various religious holidays. A reasonable accommodation would be providing a substitute employee for those days. Similarly, allowing a Muslim employee to wear a hijab despite employer restrictions on headwear would be a reasonable accommodation.

Undue Hardship

Employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices unless it would create an undue hardship. In determining what exactly is an undue hardship courts have looked to the immediacy of the hardship, the cost of the accommodation, and the impact the accommodation would have on other employees.

The hardship must be immediate—that is, it cannot be some future hardship. For example, an employer cannot refuse to accommodate an employee because similar employees in the future may need the same accommodation.

However, employers may avoid making accommodations if they will be too costly. If the costs are only minimal—i.e. allowing a Muslim employee to wear a hijab—then the employer will have to make the accommodation.

The effect of an accommodation on other employees may also factor into whether the accommodation is an undue hardship.