Legal Guide to Religious Discrimination in the Workplace in 2019

Sep 16, 2019 | Discrimination, Employment Lawsuits

What is religious discrimination?

The EEOC – the federal agency responsible for administering and enforcing laws against discrimination in US workplaces defines religious discrimination as; treating an employee or applicant unfavorably because of their religious beliefs or practices. 

Individuals who belong to traditional organized religions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism are protected by the law (Title VII, of the CRA of 1964) from discrimination. The protections extend to individuals who hold religious, moral, and ethical beliefs. Religious discrimination extends to treating a person differently because they associate with or are married to individuals who practice a certain religion. 

The latest statistics on religious discrimination in the US

According to EEOC data on discrimination related charges filed in US workplaces, religious discrimination charges are fewer than most forms of discrimination in the workplace. In 2018, only 2,859 religious discrimination charges were filed according to EEOC data against 24,600 racial discrimination charges and 16,911 age discrimination charges. However, like most workplace discrimination cases, most religious discrimination charges are dismissed on a no reasonable clause basis or because of administrative closures, factors which can be avoided by hiring a workplace discrimination attorney before filing a charge with the EEOC. 

Religious discrimination facts

Facts about religious discrimination are highlighted in Title VII. The law has a lot of prohibitions covering hiring and firing to job segregation. Title VII also prohibits harassment and requires employers to be accommodative. Here are examples that highlight religious discrimination facts and religious discrimination laws in detail. 

Modern day examples of religious discrimination in the workplace

1. Discrimination in recruitment, firing, and terms of employment

If you are denied a job, fired, given unfavorable job assignments, denied a promotion, training or benefits or any other applicable terms of employment because of your religious beliefs, this constitutes to religious discrimination in the workplace.

2. Harassment

Offensive remarks about an employee’s religious practices or beliefs constitute religious harassment. The same applies to offhand comments, simple teasing, and adverse employment decisions such as demotions, transfers, and firing because of a person’s religious beliefs or practices. In law, harassment may constitute creating a hostile working environment. The perpetrators can be co-workers, a victim’s supervisor or manager in another department. It can also be a customer or client. 

3. Segregation

Title VII also makes it illegal to assign an employee with certain religious beliefs, religious garb, or grooming practices assignments that ensure they don’t have direct contact with customers because of feared or actual customer preference. 

4. Failure to be reasonably accommodative

Employers are required to accommodate employee’s religious practices and beliefs by law to a certain extent unless doing so causes extensive burden to a company’s operations. For instance, a company should have flexible scheduling, voluntary swaps or shift substitutions, modifications to practices or workplace policies as well as job reassignments if a need arises. Failure to be reasonably accommodative as described above can constitute religious discrimination at work. 

5. Unaccommodative dressing and grooming policies

Besides being accommodative in scheduling for religious observances, companies should also accommodate dressing and grooming practices that employees have for religious reasons. If a company doesn’t allow head coverings among other religious dressing such as a Muslim headscarf, Jewish yarmulke, uncut Sikh hair/beard, and Rastafarian dreadlocks, this can be equated to unaccommodating dressing and grooming policies. Employers should also respect religious prohibitions to wearing certain garments or clothing such as miniskirts or pants in dressing code policies. 

In case an employee needs grooming and dressing accommodation among other forms of accommodation for religious purposes, he/she should notify their employer. The employer must grant accommodation if denying such accommodation doesn’t pose undue hardship to the employer. Undue hardship constitutes additional costs, decreased workplace efficiency, and decreased workplace safety. It also includes accommodations that infringe on other people’s rights or requires other employees to sacrifice (such as doing more than they are paid for).

6. Retaliation

Title VII also prohibits employers from retaliation because an employee has engaged themselves in religious activities that are protected. If an employee requests for religious accommodation which is denied by an employer, they have the right to file charges, testify, assist or participate in an investigation on the matter without facing retaliatory action from the employer. 

How to stop religious discrimination in the workplace

There are several best practices that can be used to eradicate religious discrimination at work.

Employer best practices to stop religious discrimination 

Written criteria for hiring/promoting: A clear objective criteria for evaluating applicants and rewarding employees consistent to all regardless of an individual’s religious beliefs or practices can help stop religious discrimination. 

Accurate business reasons regarding performance-related issues: Employers must also have clear rules and guidelines regarding disciplinary action to avoid employee discrimination on religious grounds. If management decisions are based on subjective judgment, this can reduce the risk of inexperienced supervisors or managers making decisions that are based on religious bias. 

A clear well-publicized anti-harassment policy: Employers who have an anti-harassment policy that is known to everyone and applied consistently have a better chance of reducing all types of workplace discrimination. Policies explain clearly what is allowed, reporting procedures, and assurances to complainants. The policies also provide for various channels of launching complaints and timelines as well as guidelines to ensuring appropriate corrective action after fast and impartial investigations are conducted.  

Reasonable accommodation: Employers should make reasonable efforts to accommodate all employees regardless of their religious beliefs and practices. Supervisors should also be trained to afford these accommodations and make sound judgments when making religion-related decisions. Employers should also be ready to adjust working schedules, provide for voluntary swaps and substitutes to cater to religious practices and needs of employees in different religious groups. 

Employee best practices to stop religious discrimination

Employees also have a role in reducing and stopping religious discrimination in the workplace with the main role being effective communication. 

Communicating discrimination: Employees who see a conflict between work rules and their religious needs should be ready to communicate such issues with management. If an employee is subjected to religious discrimination, he/she should inform the perpetrators of their displeasure. If the conduct persists, it should be reported through the appropriate channels. 

Filing a workplace religious discrimination charge 

You may be working in a company that has an anti-harassment policy, best practices for hiring and promotion, and reasonable accommodations but still, be subjected to religious discrimination. If communicating discrimination with perpetrators or management doesn’t work, you can take legal action. 

Filing with the EEOC

If you are a victim of ongoing religious discrimination in your workplace in the US, you can file a charge – a signed statement with the EEOC requesting remedial action. You should file a charge before filing a lawsuit for all EEOC enforced laws except the Equal Pay Act. 

A charge can be filed on your behalf by a workplace discrimination lawyer to protect your identity. Some timelines must be observed when filing among other technicalities like notifying your employer. The EEOC also has provisions for special concerns. For instance, concerns about a charge can be discussed with EEOC staff. In such a case, complainants can receive appropriate advice. The EEOC also has provisions for filing charges under strict deadlines. 

To avoid filling charges which aren’t applicable or admissible according to discrimination laws in the workplace, seek legal advice. There are countless guidelines and requirements that can be innocently overlooked by a complainant resulting in a dismissed charge. Workplace discrimination attorneys go a long way to avoid such instances. 

Filing with a local or state agency

If you reside in an area or jurisdiction that has anti-discrimination laws as well as agencies like FEPAs enforcing such laws, you can file a religious discrimination charge with such agencies. Such a filing results in an automatic filing with the EEOC. Local and state agencies tend to have better/more protections against discrimination in workplaces if such agencies exist. 

Filing a religious discrimination lawsuit

The EEOC must complete investigations and issue a right-to-sue notice before a complainant can file a lawsuit. However, there are exceptions. For instance, if you don’t wish to wait for EEOC investigations to be concluded, you can request a right-to-sue notice immediately. 

Like any other lawsuit, there are guidelines that must be followed. For instance, you have 90 days to sue after receiving a right-to-sue notice. It is, therefore, recommendable to hire a workplace discrimination attorney to offer legal guidance. Although the EEOC files lawsuits on behalf of complainants, very few EEOC charge filings, result in monetary settlements. 

A religious discrimination case that lacks concrete evidence or fails to meet procedural guidelines is usually dismissed by the EEOC. In 2018, for instance, only 8.4% of all religious discrimination filings with the EEOC ended in a settlement or were withdrawn with benefits. In most cases, you should hire a workplace discrimination lawyer and file a lawsuit in court to increase your chances of settling.

Cases about religious discrimination in the workplace 

In the recent past, US companies have been sued for religious discrimination. Below are some notable cases highlighting the consequences companies stand to face by failing to uphold Title VII when formulating policies and making decisions.  

1. UPS vs. applicants and employees

In 2018, package delivery services company UPS was ordered to pay $4.9 million as a settlement for a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC. According to the complainants, UPS denied male employees in customer service, delivery, and supervisory roles their right to grow a beard or hair past collar length. 

According to the EEOC, UPS failed to promote or hire individuals whose religious beliefs and practices conflicted with its appearance policies. The company also failed to include accommodative policies and went ahead to segregate employees who grew long hair and maintained beards. Such employees were assigned back-office and non-supervisory roles that didn’t involve customer contact. 

UPS was ordered to pay current and former employees and applicants $4.9 million. The company was also ordered to amend its policies, train its managers and supervisor nationwide as well as provide the EEOC reports on request regarding religious accommodation. 

2. UHPOA and CCG vs. employees

United Health Programs of America and parent company – Cost Containment Group, which are in the cost-saving business were found guilty of religious discrimination in 2018 and fined $5.1 million. The companies were found guilty of coercing nine employees to participate in religious practices creating a hostile environment in the process. Another employee (Faith Pabon) was fired for opposing the practices. The EEOC was seeking relief for all the employees as well as an award to Pabon for wrongful termination. 

According to the lawsuit, the employees were coerced into attending religious workshops, praying and participating in spiritual cleaning rituals, practices which were part of CCG’s belief system or “harnessing happiness”. According to the ruling, such practices constitute religion and the religious activities practiced at the workplace played a role in firing and hiring – religious discrimination in the workplace. Title VII prohibits employers from forcing employees to participate in religious practices in the workplace or retaliating when employees oppose or refuse to participate in such practices. The ruling is a clear indication that the law bars employers from imposing religion or religious practices on employees. 

3. HospitalityStaff vs. Rastafarian 

In 2017, Orlando staffing company HospitalityStaff was ordered to pay $30,000 to settle a lawsuit by the EEOC on behalf of a Rastafarian, Courtnay B Joseph. Joseph was required to comply with a HospitalityStaff client’s grooming standards by cutting his deadlocks. He was taken off his assignment and never reassigned.

Dreadlocks are a crucial part of the Rastafarian religion. By making employment decisions that violate religious accommodation, HospitalityStaff violated Title VII.  HospitalityStaff agreed to settle by paying $30,000 in damages to Joseph. The company was also directed to amend its employee handbook as well as policy manual to accommodate religious-based requests. As part of the ruling, HospitalityStaff also agreed to offer its management team training and providing the EEOC periodic information on handling religious complaints.

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