Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) and the laws of most states prohibit employers from engaging in religious discrimination: making job decisions based on an employee’s or applicant’s religion or lack of religious beliefs. Title VII also prohibits workplace harassment on the basis of religion. And, Title VII requires employers to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, as long as it doesn’t create an undue hardship.
Who Is Protected From Religious Discrimination?
Title VII applies to all government employers, whether federal, state, or local. It also covers private employers with at least 15 employees. Private and public employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor/management committees are all subject to Title VII, as well.
If you work or apply to work for a covered employer, Title VII protects your right to work free of discrimination based on religion and other protected characteristics, such as race and gender. Many states also prohibit religious discrimination at work. To find out whether your state is among them, select it from the list on our Workplace Discrimination and Harassment page.
What Is a Religion?
Employees and applicants are protected from discrimination based on their religious beliefs and practices. Employers also may not discriminate based on an employee’s lack of religious belief: In other words, a religious employer may not refuse to hire an atheist or any applicant who is not a member of a particular religion.
An employee need not belong to a large, organized religion to be protected from discrimination. Religious beliefs are protected whether they are traditional or outside of the mainstream, and even if they are contrary to the teachings of the religion to which the employee claims to belong. To be protected, the employee’s beliefs must only be religious in nature and sincerely held.
A belief is religious if it occupies the place of religion in the believer’s own scheme of things. In other words, it must be meaningful, must concern “ultimate ideas” such as life, death, and purpose, and must fill, in the believer’s mind, a place similar to that filled by “God” in traditional, organized religions.
Personal beliefs, even beliefs that are deeply held and important to the believer, are not necessarily religious. For example, economic, social, or political beliefs may be strongly held, but that doesn’t make them religious in nature. Whether a belief or practice is religious depends on the motivation of the person who holds it. For example, one employee might wear a head covering at all times because her religion requires it as a form of modesty; another employee might wear a head covering because she is cold, is losing her hair, or simply likes the way it looks. The first practice is religious; the second is not.
Sincerely Held Beliefs
An employer must accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs only if they are sincerely held. Often, nobody disputes that an employee’s beliefs are sincerely held. When this issue comes up, it’s typically because an employee wants an exception to the usual rules. For example, some employees with visible piercings or tattoos have asked their employers not to require them to comply with generally applicable rules that employees serving customers must remove or cover piercings or cover tattoos. If the employer believes the employee is not acting on the basis of a true religious belief but is instead simply trying to avoid following the rules, an employer might challenge the employee’s request as not based on a sincerely held religious belief.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title VII, has enumerated some factors that might call into question the sincerity of the employee’s belief. Ultimately, this judgment must be based on all of the facts and circumstances, but the following might indicate that an employee’s professed religious belief is not sincerely held:
- whether the employee has behaved in a way that is markedly inconsistent with the professed belief
- whether the employee is seeking a benefit that is likely to be sought for secular reasons
- whether the timing of the request is suspect (for example, because it follows closely on the heels of the same employee’s request for the same benefit for different reasons), and
- whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe that the employee is seeking the benefit for secular reasons.
Types of Religious Discrimination
An employer may not discriminate against an employee or applicant based on that person’s sincerely held religious beliefs. Harassment based on religion is also prohibited. And, unique among the types of discrimination Title VII prohibits, the ban on religious discrimination also requires employers to accommodate an employee’s religion.
An employer may not make job decisions because of an employee’s religion. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire Muslims, promote only Baptists, fire all Mormons, and so on. Employees who are not religious are also protected, if they are treated differently because of religion. For instance, an employer may not refuse to hire applicants who don't share the founder's religious faith or refuse to promote employees who are atheists.
Decisions based on religion are prohibited whether the employer approves or disapproves of the employee’s beliefs. For example, an employer who promotes only Mormons discriminates just as much as an employer who refuses to hire any Mormons.
Harassment is unwelcome conduct that creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile working environment. For example, if coworkers repeatedly make fun of, or make cruel comments about, an employee’s religious beliefs, that could constitute harassment.
Although Title VII prohibits employers from making decisions based on religion, it sometimes requires employers to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices -- in other words, to take the employee's religion into account when making decisions.
This apparent contradiction comes from the fact that religion is not a characteristic in the same way as race or age: Instead, it is a set of practices and beliefs. And, in some religions, believers want -- or believe their religion requires them -- to express their faith by, for example, not cutting their hair, wearing certain clothing or religious items, or telling others of their beliefs. An employer must accommodate religious beliefs unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.