Religious Discrimination: Employer’s Responses to Workplace Issues

August 28, 2007

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is featuring an article entitled Religion at work: A growing number of discrimination cases center on employees’ beliefs noting that a post 9/11 world has increased the number of religious harassment and discrimination claims. Religious accommodations can be difficult for employers to handle because they may pit one group against another.

Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act prohibit religious discrimination and harassment. The EEOC has issued Guidance on Religious Discrimination obligations of employers including the following:

  • Employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his religion. An employer might accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices by allowing: flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers, modification of grooming requirements and other workplace practices, policies and/or procedures.
  • An employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices if doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employers’ legitimate business interests. An employer can show undue hardship if accommodating an employee’s religious practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation.
  • Employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Generally, an employer may not place more restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency.
  • Employees cannot be forced to participate — or not participate — in a religious activity as a condition of employment.
  • Employers must take steps to prevent religious harassment of their employees. An employer can reduce the chance that employees will engage unlawful religious harassment by implementing an anti-harassment policy and having an effective procedure for reporting, investigating and correcting harassing conduct.

There is also specific EEOC Guidance on Workplace rights of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and Sikhs.

Protections from discrimination based upon religion can pose a challenge for employers for the following reasons:

Defining "Religion"

The law protects any "religious practice or belief" which is defined to include any "moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views". Advocacy sites exist for many nontraditional Religions. Don’t dismiss an employee’s request simply because they involve views that aren’t main stream religions.

Accommodating Religious Practices

An employer must consider reasonable accommodations that do not pose an undue hardship. The employer can evaluate different alternatives to accommodations and may reject any that has more than a de minimis cost. However, providing voluntary swaps for scheduling accommodations is required even if it results in administrative costs.  Claims by coworkers might be "upset" or "uncomfortable" when they see the religious expression (like a turban)  is not an undue hardship. The key to an employers approach to an accommodation request is to evaluate its impact and not to dismiss it out of hand.

Balancing Competing Workplace Religious Practices

Employers struggle when forced to balance workplace exercises of religion that conflict with each other. For example, pro-life verses  pro-choice or Anti-Gay religious practices have factionalized workplaces over religious accommodation. In addition, employers can become involved in disagreements stemming from workplace proselytizing. Employers must carefully balance workplace religious expressions and refrain from treating them differently than other speech.

After the original publication, I came across a very expansive summary of religous accommodation situatations perpared by Vadim Liberman in his article "What happens when an employee’s freedom of religion crosses paths with the company’s intereest?"