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Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity Office  
Religious Discrimination - What Supervisors Need to Know

Excerpts taken from The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "Training and Technical Assistance Program 2002" and online at http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html

Q & A: Religious Discrimination - What Practices Are Discriminatory?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

It is illegal to discriminate in any aspect of employment, including:
  • hiring and firing;
  • compensation, assignment, or classification of employees;
  • transfer, promotion, layoff, or recall;
  • job advertisements;
  • recruitment;
  • testing;
  • use of company facilities;
  • training and apprenticeship programs;
  • fringe benefits;
  • pay, retirement plans, and disability leave; or
  • terms and conditions of employment.
Religious Accommodation
  • An employer is required to reasonably accommodate the religious belief of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship.
Key Points to Remember

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. The Act also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless to do so would create an undue hardship upon the employer.

Common accommodations include:
  • Flexible Scheduling
    • flexible arrival and departure times
    • floating or optional holidays
    • flexible work breaks
    • working lunch in exchange for early departure
    • permitting employees to make up time lost due to religious observance
  • Voluntary substitutes and swaps or shifts, assignments, etc.
  • Lateral transfer and/or change of job assignment
  • Modifying workplace practices, policies and/or procedures
The accommodation requirement imposes responsibilities and obligations on both the individual needing the accommodation and the employer of other covered entity from whom accommodation is sought:
  • An employee needing an accommodation is obligated to make the employer or other covered entity aware of his/her need for religious accommodation. Similarly, an applicant needing and accommodation to fully participate in the application process is obligated to make the prospective employer aware of his/her need for religious accommodation.
  • Once an accommodation has been requested, it is the employer's responsibility to offer an accommodation that will reasonably accommodate the individual's religious belief or practice, unless the employer can demonstrate undue hardship.
  • The individual needing accommodation is obligated to cooperate with the employer's accommodation efforts. For example, an employee needing accommodation could not refuse to say wether a suggested accommodation would meet his/her need and then file a discrimination charge alleging that the employer's accommodation was insufficient.
  • The employer does not have to provide the accommodation preferred by the individual needing accommodation, as long as the accommodation it provides effectively eliminates any religious conflict and does not disadvantage the individual's employment opportunities, such as compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. The individual does not have to accept the accommodation, but he/she cannot insist that he/she be given a different accommodation, if the proffered accommodation was sufficient to satisfy his/her religious need.
Employers cannot schedule examinations or other selection activities in conflict with a current or prospective employee's religious needs, inquire about an applicant's future availability at certain times, maintain a restrictive dress code, or refuse to allow observance of a Sabbath or religious holiday, unless the employer can prove that not doing so would cause an undue hardship.

An employer can claim undue hardship when accommodating an employee's religious practices if allowing such practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs. Undue hardship also may be shown if changing a bona fide seniority system to accommodate one employee's religious practices denies another employee the job or shift preference guaranteed by the seniority system.

Mandatory "new age" training programs, designed to improve employee motivation, cooperation or productivity through meditation, yoga, biofeedback or other practices, may conflict with the non-discriminatory provisions of Title VII. Employers must accommodate any employee who gives notice that these programs are inconsistent with the employee's religious beliefs, whether or not the employer believes there is a religious basis for the employee's objection.

Disparate Treatment in Hiring and Firing
  • General Rule

    It is unlawful for employers or other entities subject to Title VII to discriminate against an employee or applicant, on the basis of his/her religion, in hiring or firing. This means that an employer cannot fire or refuse to hire a person because that person either has or does not have a particular religious affiliation, or because that person holds or does not hold a particular religious belief. So, for example, it would be unlawful for a company to refuse to hire Buddhists, or to refuse to provide job applications to individuals wearing a Jewish Star or mezuzah. Similarly, it would be unlawful for a company to select only atheists for a reduction-in-force (RIF), or to shield born-again Christians from RIF selection.

Religious harassment

While Title VII permits religious expression by employees, supervisors and managers, it prohibits religious harassment. Although religious harassment can take many forms, it frequently takes the form of coercion of employee participation or non-participation in religious activities; and verbally abusive conduct.

Coercion of Religious Participation or Non-Participation

A supervisor or manager may not, explicitly or implicitly, insist that an employee participate in religious activities or hold particular religious views as a condition of continued employment, promotion, preferred job assignments, or any other benefit or privilege of employment. Nor may a supervisor inisit that an employee not participate in religious activities outside the workplace or not hold particular religious views. Such conduct would constitute religious harassment in violation of Title VII.

Abusive Conduct

Title VII also protects employees from a religiously hostile work environment, whether created by a supervisor or co-workers. As is true in cases of sexual or racial harassment, whether a particular employee's work environment is "hostile" for purposes of religious discrimination depends on the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency and severity of the harassing conduct, whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's work performance. The key question is whether, on balance, the harassing conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the employee's employment and create an abusive working environment, when judged both objectively (i.e., using the reasonable person standard) and subjectively (i.e., from the actual perspective of the affected individual).

The repeated use of religiously derogatory language in an assaultive manner can constitute hostile environment religious harassment. A single incident, if sufficiently severe, could also constitute harassment. Also relevant to a determination of whether there is a hostile environment is whether those engaging in the harassing conduct are co-workers or supervisors, whether the employer knew or should have known of the harassing conduct, and the actions, if any, the employer took to prevent and/or stop the conduct.