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Defining Religious Discrimination

| February 26, 2020

One of the most fundamental rights Americans enjoy is that of freedom of religion. Indeed, many would argue that this right, and the marketplace of ideas it creates, explains the increased religiosity of Americans when compared to our peer countries. But such robust freedom is not without compromise; individuals freely exercising a diverse array of religions are bound to come into conflict with each other. When those conflicts arise in the workplace, the law must ensure that they do not rise to the level of religious discrimination. 

For more information about work-related religious discrimination, please contact a Maryland discrimination lawyer

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act Prohibits Religious Discrimination 

The primary source of federal law prohibiting religious discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which states, in pertinent part: 

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s…religion…or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s…religion…

The Act further states that the term “religion” includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. To put it plainly, employers must take steps to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, unless that accommodation would create an undue hardship on the employer. 

What Constitutes Religious Discrimination? 

As interpreted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Title VII prevents: 

  • Treating job applicants or employees differently based upon their religious beliefs or practices in any aspect of employment, including recruitment, hiring, assessments, discipline, promotion, and benefits (this is known in legal terms as “disparate treatment).
  • Subjecting employees to harassment because of their religious beliefs or practices or because of the beliefs or practices of people with whom they associate (such as spouses, relatives, and friends) 
  • Denying a request for a reasonable accommodation of an applicant or employee’s religious beliefs or practices if the accommodation would not impose an undue hardship on the employer
  • Retaliating against an applicant or employee who has engaged in a protected activity (such as lodging a charge of discrimination with the EEOC) or opposed religious discrimination in the workplace.

These prohibitions apply with equal force to treating applicants and employees differently due to their beliefs and due to their lack of beliefs — such as refusing to hire an applicant because they are not Christian or because they are an atheist.

What Qualifies as a Religious Belief? 

As a threshold matter, we must define what a “religious belief” is. Mainstream religious beliefs, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and all variants thereof, are easily understood to constitute religious beliefs. But less mainstream beliefs, as well as individual expressions of religious beliefs, are much harder to quantify. The courts have never officially defined what a “religion” is, opting instead belief systems as religions based upon their characteristics. Various courts have held that the following characteristics, among others, are indicative of religions: 

  • The belief system addresses fundamental and ultimate questions
  • The belief system is comprehensive in nature
  • The belief system presents certain formal and external signs. 

The courts have also found that the presence of members, leaders, a holy book, symbols, and belief in a god or gods may also indicate that a belief system constitutes a religion. 

Beliefs Must Be Sincerely Held

In order to qualify for protection as a religious belief, the beliefs in question must be “sincerely held.” When evaluating whether an individual’s belief is sincere, courts look to how long the person has believed something and how consistently he or he has followed the dictates of those beliefs, although the courts do not require individuals to steadfastly follow every tenet of a particular belief system. Factors that may undermine an employee’s assertion that his or her religious belief is sincere include: 

  • Whether the employee has behaved in a manner inconsistent with his or her professed belief
  • Whether the accommodation the employee seeks is particularly desirable or likely to be sought for non-religious reasons
  • Whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (for example, if it follows an earlier request for the same benefit for non-religious reasons) 
  • Whether the employer has any other reason to believe that the employee is not seeking the benefit for religious reasons

In most cases, religious beliefs will be deemed to be “sincerely held” if the adherent has professed to believe them for a sufficient amount of time and has acted in a manner generally consistent with those beliefs. For more information about the manner in which the law determines whether a belief is sincerely held, please contact a Maryland discrimination lawyer

What Are “Reasonable Accommodations?” Our Maryland Discrimination Lawyer Explains

A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment of an employee’s duties or work environment designed to facilitate the practice of a certain religious belief. Some of the most common religious accommodations sought in the workplace are: 

  1. Schedule changes: Members of certain religions often require schedule changes to accommodate the practice of their faith. This can include time off to attend church services on special holy days (structural schedule changes to ensure that an individual does not have to work on certain days such as the Sabbath), and breaks at scheduled times to permit daily prayers. 
  2. Dress code exemptions: Many religions require their adherents to wear certain articles of clothing (such as Muslim women who wear religious headscarves) or refrain from doing so (such as Pentecostal Christian women who do not wear pants). Members of these religions often require exemptions from their employer’s dress code. 
  3. Adjustment of work duties: Many religions prohibit their adherents from engaging in certain tasks. For example, many Christian pharmacy employees request to be excused from filling birth control prescriptions, while Jehovah’s Witnesses may object to working on, or producing, weapons of war. 
  4. Excusal from participation in religious activities: On the flip side, not all individuals wish to participate in religious activities and may seek to be excused from them. This is particularly the case for atheists, who may ask to be excused from company-led prayers or other forms of religious observance. 
  5. Excusal from paying union dues or agency fees: Adherents of certain religions object to paying union dues on principle or because they disagree with a political or social cause the union supports.

The law requires employers to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer. 

What Is an “Undue Hardship”? 

The requirement that employers make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs is not absolute; they are permitted to decline to do so if a particular accommodation would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. As with “sincerely held” beliefs and “reasonable accommodations,” “undue hardship” is a vague term that is difficult to quantify. Generally, an undue hardship is one that requires significant difficulty or expense. Some accommodations that have been deemed to create undue hardships are those that:

  • Are excessively costly (defined as imposing more than a de minimis cost) 
  • Cause a lack of necessary staffing
  • Diminish workplace efficiency 
  • Jeopardize workplace safety  or health
  • Require other employees to engage in more than their fair share of dangerous or burdensome work
  • Violate seniority rights (Courts have found undue hardship where deviation from a bona fide seniority system is necessary to accommodate an employee’s religious practice when doing so would deprive another employee of the benefits of that seniority system).

To prove undue hardship, an employer must demonstrate how expensive or disruptive the requested accommodation would be with concrete, objective data. An allegation of undue hardship also may not be based on an assumption that, if granted, the accommodation would induce more employees with the same religious beliefs to request it. Even in situations where allowing an accommodation would create an undue hardship, employers may be required to implement an alternative. For example, in situations where schedule changes would create an undue hardship, employers must allow co-workers to voluntarily substitute or swap shifts. Likewise, if a particular employee cannot be accommodated in his or her current position, transferring that employee to a different position may be required. 

Contact a Maryland Discrimination Lawyer for More Information About Workplace Religious Discrimination

If you believe that you have been the victim of religious discrimination in the workplace, you should consider speaking to an attorney to evaluate your case and weigh your options. To get started, please contact a Maryland discrimination lawyer at the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford for a consultation by using our online form or calling us at 410-514-6099.