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What is religious discrimination?
  • Unless it would cause undue hardship, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs and practices.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in any terms and conditions of employment. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

In most cases, whether a practice or belief is “religious” is not at issue. Employers may not treat employees or applicants less — or more — favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices. For example, an employer may not:

  • Refuse to hire individuals of a certain religion;
  • Impose stricter promotion requirements for people of a certain religion; or
  • Impose more or different work requirements due to an employee’s religious beliefs or practices.

Employees cannot be forced to participate — or not participate — in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

What is religious accommodation?

In addition to avoiding discrimination, employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. A reasonable accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow employees to practice their religion. Examples might include:

  • Flexible scheduling;
  • Voluntary job or shift substitutions or swaps;
  • Job reassignments and lateral transfers; or
  • Modifying workplace practices, policies, and/or procedures.

Generally, requests for religious accommodations can be handled with a change in shift or work hours. If an accommodation is denied, employers must show the accommodation would result in undue hardship or violate a bona fide seniority system. Otherwise, employers have a duty to accommodate the employee.

An accommodation posing undue hardship is one would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of their particular business. This is a higher threshold than that of a de minimis cost.

Employers must consider relevant factors in a situation, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.

When assessing an accommodation’s hardship, employers may include the impact on coworkers, but only if it affects the conduct of the business. Employers must look at other criteria.

Further, a hardship is not undue if it is attributable to:

  • Employee animosity to a particular religion,
  • To religion in general, or
  • To the very notion of accommodating religious practice.

Bias or hostility to a religious practice or accommodation is not a defense.

An attempt to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs might not be successful, but failure to engage in the process, or the outright rejection of the request without any effort to accommodate, may result in a discrimination complaint. For example, declining a request for time off to attend a religious event because other employees would not be allowed off may not be appropriate unless it really would be an undue hardship. Treating everyone the same is not enough because of the positive duty to accommodate.

In some cases, the alleged discrimination isn’t obvious. For example, employees with performance problems may have also requested time off for their religious beliefs. If they are terminated, the courts may need to decide whether the employer had a “mixed motive” in firing the employee. If their religious beliefs were considered, the claim of performance issues may be a false reason or motive (or “pretext”) for discrimination. But if an effort was made to accommodate the need for time off, the employer should face fewer challenges in defending against the charge.