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Religious Discrimination in Employment

Globalization, immigration patterns, a focus on workplace diversity, and a renewed spiritual awakening prompted by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have combined to create a more religiously diverse and devout workforce.

As a result, the proverbial wall separating religion from work is crumbling now, and more and more workers are bringing their religion into the workplace. This proliferation of religion in the workplace is creating new challenges for employers. They increasingly are being inundated with requests for religious accommodations and progressively confronted with unexpected and awkward faith-related situations.

Mastering HR Report: Discrimination

Religious accommodation requests and religious discrimination claims are on the rise

The number of religious accommodation requests and religious discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has risen sharply during the last decade. Since 1997, the number of religious discrimination charges filed with the EEOC has increased nearly 50%. They are the third-fastest growing discrimination claims behind disability-based (Americans with Disability Act) claims and sexual harassment claims.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination

How is “religion” in the workplace defined?
When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) was originally passed, it prohibited employment discrimination based on religion, but didn’t define the term “religion.” Language was added later stipulating that “the term ‘religion’ includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.”

The EEOC also has defined religious practices by workers to “include moral or ethical beliefs about what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”

Courts across the country have determined that the religious protections offered under Title VII can include beliefs an employer wouldn’t necessarily associate with any traditional religion. In determining whether an employee’s beliefs or practices qualify as “religious,” courts often will ask a series of questions to separate religious beliefs from an opinion or moral code that doesn’t fall under Title VII’s protection.

State-by-state comparison of 50 Employment Laws in 50 States, including religious discrimination and accommodations

Religious harassment
Title VII also prohibits employers from harassing employees because of their religious beliefs. When an employee is harassed because of his religious beliefs, it usually takes one of two forms: hostility or proselytizing. With either scenario, an employer must determine whether the employee is being harassed because of his “sincerely held religious belief.”

The question isn’t whether the employee’s religion is legitimate or traditional but whether his belief is sincere. That’s because courts have found that a vegan, for example, who opposes eating meat because he believes that life is sacred has a sincere religious belief and it would therefore be illegal to harass him for refusing to eat meat.

In the first type of religious harassment (hostility), the employee is antagonized, ridiculed, and harassed because of his religious beliefs, either by coworkers or supervisors. There usually isn’t any doubt that the conduct is intended to offend the employee. Again, the relevant question is whether the worker is being harassed because of his sincerely held religious belief. That’s true even if the employee is an atheist or agnostic.

The second type of religious harassment (proselytizing) arises when a coworker or supervisor “preaches” to an employee, and the employee perceives that behavior to be unwanted and offensive — amounting to a hostile environment. The stakes can be higher when it’s the supervisor who is preaching to a subordinate.