Religious Discrimination in the Workplace: Definition, Effects & Examples

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  • 0:03 Religious…
  • 0:54 What's Prohibited
  • 2:53 Consequences of Violations
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
Religious discrimination in the workplace is against the law. In this lesson, you'll learn what religious discrimination is and the effects it can have on an employer who engages in it or permits it. A short quiz follows.

Religious Discrimination Definition

Religious discrimination, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is 'treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs.' The relevant law that prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is enforced by the EEOC. Private sector employers who employ 15 or more employees are subject to Title VII.

The EEOC notes that religion is broadly defined to include not only people following traditionally recognized religions but also people who have 'sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs.' Moreover, you can be subject to religious discrimination if you are treated unfavorably because of the beliefs of your spouse or your connection with a religious organization.

What's Prohibited?

Federal law prohibits different types of discriminatory actions in the workplace. Let's take a look at the major categories:

Employment actions: Employers may not discriminate against an employee based upon religion regarding hiring, firing, promotion, pay, benefits, assignments, and any other term or condition of employment.

While the law doesn't protect people from simple teasing or isolated incidents that are not severe, it does prohibit harassment that is severe or frequent such that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment. Harassers relevant to the law include any supervisor, co-workers, and even customers.

Segregation: Employers may not segregate employees based upon religious belief. In fact, it is illegal to assign an employee to a position with no customer contact on the basis of the employee's religious belief, even if there is an actual customer preference for not interacting with such employees.

Reasonable accommodations: Employers are required to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee unless the accommodation will result in more than a 'minimal burden' on the operation of the employer's business or imposes an undue hardship on the employer. An undue hardship may occur if the accommodation is costly, compromises workplace health and safety, or interferes with other people's rights. An undue hardship may also occur if the accommodation means that other employees will have to do more than their fair share of burdensome or dangerous work.

For example, an employer may be required to provide a flexible schedule to permit persons of the orthodox Jewish faith to leave early on Fridays to honor the Sabbath. Reasonable accommodations also relate to manner of dress and grooming, such as wearing certain headdress (such as a Muslim headscarf) or facial hair. Moreover, an employer may be required to honor certain religious prohibitions regarding dress, such as a prohibition against revealing clothing.

Consequences of Violations

Employers that violate Title VII can face significant consequences. If an EEOC investigation makes a determination of discrimination, they will attempt to settle the dispute between the employer and victim, which usually involves a change in policy and some monetary compensation. An employer doesn't have to settle: the EEOC or the victim may file a lawsuit against the employer instead. If a court or jury determines a violation of Title VII, then an employer may be subject to paying damages. Even if an employer wins, the costs of defending lawsuits are quite expensive.

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