Workplace religious discrimination can arise under a wide variety of circumstances and pose unique challenges for businesses and employees. Employers have an obligation to reasonably accommodate employees as well as refrain from treating them differently because of their religion. Yet employers may have valid reasons for work policies that impact an employee’s religious beliefs and practices. Seeking advice from a skilled employment lawyer is essential to protecting employee and employer rights in this area. Our attorneys have extensive experience helping clients on both sides prevent and address illegal conduct as well as advocating on their behalf where conflicts arise.
What Is Religious Discrimination?
Various laws prevent employers from treating employees differently due to the employee’s religious affiliations or beliefs. Such laws apply to those who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs, as well as atheists or agnostics. Discriminatory conduct is prohibited if it is intentional or where a seemingly neutral business policy has a disparate impact on those in the protected class. An employer’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee also constitutes discrimination as discussed in the next section.
Religious discrimination claims can involve hiring, firing, promotions and any other term, condition or benefit of employment. It can also be implicated in dress code and grooming policies, such as where individuals must wear head coverings because of their religion. Harassment, including offensive, abusive or threatening comments, is also illegal if based on the employee’s religious beliefs. Further, employers cannot retaliate against employees for reporting or threatening to report discrimination.
Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Defense
Employers are required by law to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, so long as there is not an undue hardship on the employer. A religious accommodation is an adjustment to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion. Common examples of accommodations include permitting:
- Flexible work schedules
- Scheduling changes
- Exceptions to dress codes
- A work location for prayer
An accommodation is not reasonable if it results in an undue hardship on the employer. Relevant factors in determining undue hardship include the type of workplace; the employee’s duties; the relative cost to the employer of making the accommodation; the effect on workplace safety, efficiency and the rights of other employees; and whether it violates the terms of a collective bargaining agreement or job rights established through a seniority system.
What Laws Prohibit Religious Discrimination?
Employees are protected from religious discrimination under federal, state and local laws. However, these vary with regard to which employers are covered and how employees can enforce their rights.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in all aspects of employment. Generally, it only applies to employers with at least 15 employees, labor unions and employment agencies. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII.
Under federal law, harassment based on religion is unlawful provided that it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
New York Law
The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) both protect employees from workplace discrimination based on religion and apply to all employers. The New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR) handles enforcement of state discrimination laws, while the New York City Human Rights Commission’s (NYCHRC) Law Enforcement Bureau (LEB) addresses claims involving city employees.
Notably, New York state law also expressly prohibits employment discrimination based on attire, clothing or facial hair worn as a form of religious observance. In addition, unlike federal law, state law does not require that harassment be severe or pervasive to be illegal. However, the employer has an affirmative defense to liability if the harassing conduct does not rise above the level of what a reasonable victim of discrimination with the same protected characteristic would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.
Are There Exceptions to Religious Discrimination Laws?
Religious organizations and educational institutions may give employment preference to members of their own religion. However, they cannot otherwise discriminate, such as based on the employee’s sex, race or age. Furthermore, this exemption only applies to institutions whose “purpose and character are primarily religious.” Relevant factors include whether the institution’s articles of incorporation state a religious purpose; its day-to-day operations are religious; it is a not-for-profit; and it is affiliated with, or supported by, a church or other religious organization.
There is also a ministerial exception based on the First Amendment. Courts have held that those employees who perform essentially religious functions cannot bring religious discrimination claims under federal discrimination laws.
How Should Workplace Discrimination Be Addressed?
The goal of every workplace should be to minimize discriminatory conduct. However, where it does occur, both sides must act promptly to address problems.
Actions by Employees
Employees experiencing discrimination have several avenues to enforce their rights. Under federal law, employees seeking redress must file a complaint with the EEOC before going to court. If the EEOC does not resolve the claim within 180 days, the employee can obtain a “Notice of Right to Sue” from the EEOC and then bring an action in federal or state court within 90 days of the date the notice was received.
New York State law allows employees to file a discrimination complaint against an employer with the NYSDHR or bring a lawsuit in the New York state courts. If an employee goes to the NYSDHR, the agency will review the complaint and then decide whether to send it to an administrative law judge for a final order. Employees can appeal these orders to state court, if necessary. The complaint must be filed with the NYSDHR within one year of the last alleged act of discrimination. Where an employee chooses to go straight to court, the suit must be brought within three years of the last act of discrimination.
For New York City employees, the same timing and rules apply as under state law, except that employees would go to the LEB, not the NYSDHR.
Actions by Employers
Being proactive is the best way for employers to avoid liability under discrimination laws. A skilled employment attorney can provide invaluable guidance to a business in establishing appropriate anti-discrimination policies, procedures and employee training. In particular, employers should develop policies regarding reasonable accommodations, dress codes and other areas likely to result in religious discrimination claims.
Employers must also institute reporting and investigation systems and follow through on complaints. Proper documentation is essential to protect employers from claims that they failed to act on a complaint or retaliated against an employee for reporting discrimination.
Religious discrimination involves a highly fact sensitive assessment. Both sides should consult an experienced employment attorney to understand how laws are applied to each situation and the best way to protect employees and minimize discriminatory conduct.
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