Employers may not discriminate against employees or applicants based on their religious beliefs. This means, for example, that employers may not refuse to hire anyone who does not share their faith, promote only Jews or Catholics, or require background checks only of Muslim employees. (See Your Rights Against Religious Discrimination for more information.)
The law also requires employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. In other words, employers are also required to take their employees’ religion into account when making job decisions.
The obligation to accommodate religious practice arises from the nature of religion: Unlike the other characteristics protected by discrimination laws, such as race, age, or gender, religion is not a trait one is born with, but a system of beliefs. And, unlike other protected traits, religion sometimes requires particular behavior while adherents are at work, such as prayer; observing certain holidays; wearing specified items, types of clothing, or hair styles; or professing one's faith to others.
The Right to an Accommodation
If you have a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment rule or requirement, the law requires your employer to accommodate your beliefs, working with you to find a way around the conflict. This might mean, for example, agreeing not to schedule you to work on your Sabbath day or relaxing a company dress code so that you can wear religious garments.
Some possible accommodations include:
- Scheduling changes. For example, you might need time off for religious holidays, breaks during the day for prayer, or a schedule that allows you to take your weekly Sabbath day off.
- Changes in your job. If your job duties conflict with your religious beliefs, your employer may be required to modify your work.
- Exceptions to dress or grooming requirements. For example, an employer that requires men to have short hair may have to make an exception for men whose religious beliefs prohibit cutting their hair.
- Use of company facilities. If an employee needs a private space for prayer or other religious observance during the work day, for example, an employer may be required to provide it.
- Excused absence from employer programs. Employers are free to include religious expression in their trainings, meetings, or other functions. Some employers also choose to include spiritual practices or express humanist beliefs that conflict with the idea of a God or Creator. These employers must allow employees whose religious beliefs (or lack thereof) conflict to be excused from attendance.
- Proselytizing at work. Some religions require their practitioners to profess their faith. Although employers must try to provide an accommodation, this practice can conflict with the rights of other employees. This tricky issue is covered in more detail below.
Workplace Expression of Religious Beliefs
Some employees want to express their religious beliefs in the workplace by, for example, using religious language (such as "God bless you" or "Praise the Lord") when communicating with others or attempting to proselytize coworkers. In these situations, it can be difficult to balance the rights of the religious employee with the rights of others who do not share those beliefs. An employee who isn't allowed to express sincere religious beliefs may feel discriminated against; at the same time, an employee who is unwillingly subjected to a coworker's religious statements may feel harassed. And, the employer may object if the employee gives customers or clients the mistaken impression that the company shares the employee’s beliefs.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the federal law prohibiting religious discrimination, employers must allow employees to engage in religious expression at work as long as it doesn't create an undue hardship (discussed below). And employers may not restrict religious expression more heavily than other forms of expression that have a similar impact on workplace efficiency. (For example, if a company allowed employees to engage in pitched arguments over politics, it would be difficult for that company to justify a complete crackdown on discussions of religion.)
It's not entirely clear what these rules mean in practice. Courts have made diverse rulings when employees have sued because they weren't allowed to express their religious beliefs at work. Some courts have held that an employer doesn't have to accommodate an employee's religious expression when it could constitute harassment against other employees or it goes against the employer's diversity or nondiscrimination policies. On the other hand, some courts have found in the employee's favor if his or her behavior was merely "annoying" or created discomfort for others.
The employer does not have to provide the accommodation you request, but must work with you to come up with a plan that will work. However, an employer need not provide an accommodation that will create an undue hardship for the company.
If an accommodation would impose more than minor costs, the employer need not provide it. The EEOC has said that employers may be required to pay administrative costs, such as the cost of time spent on changing schedules or payroll information. Payment of overtime (for example, to an employee who is willing to work a longer shift to accommodate a coworker’s Sabbath) on a one-time or infrequent basis will not be considered an undue hardship. However, an employer does not have to hire additional employees or pay regular overtime or other premium wages to accommodate an employee’s religious practices.
Cost is not the only consideration in deciding whether an accommodation creates an undue hardship. Courts will also consider the burden on the business generally. An accommodation will be deemed an undue hardship if it substantially harms the morale of other employees, reduces efficiency in other jobs, infringes on the rights of other workers, creates safety concerns, or requires coworkers to take on extra work that is burdensome or hazardous, for example.