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All Employees Are Entitled To Protection Against Religious Discrimination

In the eyes of the law, a person’s religious beliefs do not matter. The law is not concerned with favoring one group of individuals over another, but with creating equal opportunities for everyone to thrive under. It’s important to understand this, because for many people, religious protections are only relevant to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, which are the three most common religious practices in the United States. 

In short, every employee is entitled to protection against religious discrimination, whether their choice of spiritual practice falls outside the country’s mainstream practices.

If you were the victim of religious discrimination in the workplace you may be entitled to damages for:

What Is Religious Discrimination?

There are two types of religious discrimination: treating employees differently because of their religious beliefs — which is a form of differential treatment — and not accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs.

Employers are not allowed to make job related decisions based on an employee’s religious beliefs. Many examples of overt differential treatment are fairly straightforward. For example, an employer cannot refuse to hire Jews, exclude Catholics from promotions, or more harshly discipline Muslim employees over other employees.

Unless doing so will create undue hardship, all employers must reasonably accommodate their employee’s religious beliefs and practices. Common accommodations include:

  1. Scheduling changes so that employees can observe a Sabbath.
  2. Allowing for breaks throughout the day for prayer, and 
  3. Days off for special religious ceremonies.

What laws protect me against religious discrimination?

Federal law (Title VII) and California law (California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) both prohibit employers from engaging in religious discrimination, which means that employers cannot make job related decisions based on a job applicant or employee’s religious practices. Harassment based on religion is also unlawful, and as long as it doesn’t create undue hardship, employers are generally required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices.

The California Workplace Religious Freedom Act was created to expand existing (FEHA) protections to allow employees to wear religious garments — including head and face coverings — as well as religious jewelry in the workplace. These protections allow employees to refuse to wear pants or short skirts, as long as these accommodations are in accordance with their religious beliefs. Protections also extend to select religious grooming practices, such as wearing long hair or facial hair.

What Religions Are Protected From Religious Discrimination?

All employees are entitled to protection against religious discrimination, regardless of whether their professed religion falls outside of the more commonly practiced religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

An employee’s choice of religion is protected, as long as that belief, observance, or practice is sincerely believed and occupies a real place in the life of that believer. These protections also extend to Atheism.

Beliefs are religious as long as they occupy the place of religion in an employee’s life. An employee’s beliefs must be meaningful for the believer, and they must revolve around meaningful concepts, such as life and death. 

As long as an employee’s beliefs fulfill a similar role to that which is filled by the God of mainstream religions, they are protected.The intention behind these protections is for no one to be left behind or discriminated against just because their religious beliefs are different from those held by the rest of society.

How to Prove Discrimination Based on Religion

There are two types of religious discrimination: treating employees differently because of their religious beliefs — which is a form of differential treatment — and not accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs.

Many examples of overt differential treatment are straightforward. For example, an employer cannot refuse to hire Jews, exclude Catholics from promotions, or more harshly discipline Muslim employees over other employees.

Religious protections extend to even those without religious beliefs, such as atheists and agnostic individuals. Employers are not allowed to show any special treatment towards employees of a particular religion. An example would be a Muslim employer who only hires Muslim employees.

However, because direct evidence of religious discrimination is rare, an aggrieved employee must rely on circumstantial evidence to support their case. Let’s consider the following example. Mary applies for a promotion which she is more than qualified for. Mary’s employer is excited about promoting Mary to a management position, and lets her know during her interview that the job is basically hers if she wants it.

Mary expresses gratitude for the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder, and explains that she had been praying for this opportunity all along, and that she believes God helped her succeed along her career path. Mary’s employer, an atheist, does not appreciate Mary saying this. The next day, the employer, without consulting anyone, decides against promoting Mary and instead hires another employee who is not religious.

Let’s consider an example. Say that Betty requests permission to leave work an hour early on Friday nights because she needs to attend Bible study classes. Betty is aware that her request could affect productivity, so she reasonably offers to come in one hour early on Mondays to make up the difference.

Betty’s employer denies her request, claiming that the company needs every employee at work and that she simply can not leave early. Furthermore, her employer explains that he will not accommodate time off for personal reasons. However, other employees are allowed to customize their schedules to attend night school or to watch their children’s sporting games. Suddenly, the employer’s claim that Betty’s accommodations are unreasonable appears suspect.

What Are My Damages In A Religious Discrimination Case?

The damages available in a religious discrimination claim will depend on the actual discriminatory action and the effect it had on its victim. For example, damages may include placement in the desired job and or back pay and any benefits that person would have received had the discrimination not taken place.

A victim of racial discrimination may also be entitled to attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and any applicable court costs. Finally, compensatory and punitive damages may be awarded, as well.

Can My Boss Fire Me For Reporting Religious Discrimination?

Retaliation against an employee who files a religious discrimination charge, or who aids in a discrimination investigation, is against the law.

Who should I contact if I was the victim of religious discrimination?

If everything changed after discussing your religious beliefs, ask your employer if that was the reason why you did not get a previously discussed promotion or benefit. This conversation may help provide you with the evidence you need to strengthen your claim, or it may illuminate the real reason why the decision was made, whether it had something to do with your religious beliefs or not.

The next step is filing a complaint with your company’s Human Resources (HR) department. Making a formal complaint within your company is necessary because it gives them an opportunity to investigate and rectify the situation. Filing a formal complaint is also useful if you choose to file a lawsuit in the future, because it proves that your employer was aware of the problem and did nothing to address it.

If your employer doesn’t handle your complaint, the next step is to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or California’s fair employment practices agency. This is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit. Either the EEOC or the Department Of Fair Employment and Housing will investigate the claim, and try to settle the issue or give you a right to sue letter.

The final step is to file a lawsuit. An experienced employment lawyer will help assess your claim and decide whether litigation is in your best interests.


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