Religious freedom is one of the fundamental rights of every American and is one of the crucial principles upon which our country was founded. In the United States, every person has the right to participate, practice, and engage in any religion. This means that not only does a person have the right to believe in any religion they choose to believe in, but it also means that they shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.
As a result, whether a person is on the street or at work, they should not be treated differently because of their beliefs or lack of beliefs. However, this is not always the case for a lot of workers. If an employee has been treated unfairly or experienced unequal treatment because of their religion in the workplace, they may have grounds for a lawsuit.
In this article, we will discuss what is legally needed to prove religious discrimination in the workplace.
What is Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?
Workplace religious discrimination involves treating a person unfavorably as a job candidate or an existing employee because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs. The law recognizes two types of religious discrimination at work: the failure to accommodate religious beliefs and disparate treatment.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) protects candidates and employees who belong to traditional organized religions and those with other religious, ethical, or moral beliefs. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the term ‘religion’ refers to ‘ultimate ideas about life, purpose, and death.’ Religion can be unique, but belief in it must be meaningful and sincere to the practitioner. However, employers cannot discriminate against employees because they lack religious beliefs. By law, agnostics and atheists are also protected from workplace religious discrimination.
Types of Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
There are two basic types of religious workplace discrimination at work:
1. The Failure to Accommodate Employees Religious Beliefs – Reasonable Accommodation
New York employers have a responsibility to reasonably accommodate employee’s religious beliefs, including all aspects of religious observance and practice. A religious belief cannot be a matter of personal preference but one of deep and sincere religious conviction, shared by an organized religious group and related to daily living. If an employee has a religious belief or religious practice that conflicts with the performance of their employment responsibilities, then they are entitled to reasonable accommodation. For example, if their religion requires them to refrain from working on Sundays, then a reasonable accommodation might involve changing their schedule to allow them to work on Saturdays instead of Sundays.
An employer is required to find a reasonable accommodation working in cooperation with the employee. The employee doesn’t have to propose such accommodation, but if they do, their employer doesn’t have to choose that option. Instead, they can provide any accommodation they see fit. An employer is not required to provide accommodation if it presents an undue hardship to the company. Undue hardship is anything that imposes more than a small cost or burden upon the employer, given the context of their business.
If an employer states that they are unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or religious practice without undue hardship to their business, then the employee is given the opportunity to show that the reason for not accommodating their belief was pretextual and not a legitimate reason. In this case, an employee must establish three things:
- The employee has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employer’s requirements
- The employee has informed the employer of their sincerely held religious belief and the conflict created by the religious belief
- The employee’s religious belief was not accommodated by the employer even though they could do so without undue hardship.
It is also important to note that an employer has no right to subject an employee who requested a reasonable accommodation to adverse action.
2. Disparate Treatment
Disparate treatment is the unfavorable treatment of an employee because of their religious beliefs. This type of workplace discrimination may come in the form of adverse employment actions such as refusing to hire or provide training, denying promotions, disciplining, denying equal compensation and benefits, and firing. Disparate treatment also includes workplace harassment based on religion. Religious harassment may consist of offhand remarks about religious clothing such as a head scarf or yarmulke, mocking an employee’s beliefs or lack of beliefs, or attempts to proselytize in the workplace.
In order to establish a case of religious discrimination on the basis of disparate treatment, an employee must prove the following:
- They are a member of a protected class (a recognized religion)
- They have suffered an adverse employment action
- The non-members of the protected class (a recognized religion) have received more favorable treatment than the employee in question.
Once an employee establishes a prima facie case, the employer must provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment decision. If the employer manages to do that, the employee must then demonstrate that the proffered reason was just a pretext for unlawful religious discrimination.
Can You Sue Your Employer for Religious Discrimination?
If an employee has been treated unfairly, has been exposed to derogatory religious slurs, or received disproportionate benefits, they may have a right to sue their employer for religious discrimination. Typically, this type of discrimination has to occur in the workplace, preferably in front of witnesses (other employees, managers, clients, or customers). To win a case, an employee’s attorney will need to demonstrate that they were treated differently, specifically because of their religious beliefs. Some of the most common examples of workplace religious discrimination are:
- Refusing to hire a candidate or firing an employee because of their religion
- Paying an employee less because of their religion
- Excluding an employee from a company’s training, events, or meetings because of their religion
- Failing to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs (banning employees from wearing religious clothes or symbols, refusing to allow time off, alternating work schedules, etc.)
- Subjecting an employee to vulgar, hostile, or derogatory speech or behavior because of their religion
- Denying a promotion because of their beliefs
- Implementing a dress code policy that unfairly bans certain religious attire
- Denying an employee various benefits because of their religious beliefs
- Requiring employees to participate in various religious activities (prayers during lunch breaks).
It is important to note that, although New York is an ’employment at will’ state, where an employer can fire an employee for almost any reason and at any time, an employee’s religious beliefs are not a valid basis for losing their job.
The federal and New York employment laws forbid religious discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, pay, promotions, firing, or any other terms or conditions of employment. The law does not prohibit isolated and rare comments or teasing. Still, religious harassment by a supervisor, a colleague, or a customer is illegal when it is pervasive and creates a hostile work environment.
To find out whether you have a case worth pursuing, feel free to contact Cilenti & Cooper today. We treat every case with the attention and care it deserves and can fight for your rights from beginning to end. We offer a free consultation to all of our prospective clients, so you have nothing to lose.