Religious Discrimination at Work

Learn how to recognize -- and fight -- workplace discrimination based on religion.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees and applicants based on their religion under federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and the laws of many states. Unfortunately, however, religious discrimination still takes place. This article explains how to assess your situation and what steps to take to protect your rights.

Recognizing Religious Discrimination

There are two basic types of religious discrimination claims: treating an employee differently because of his or her religious beliefs, and failing to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs.

Differential Treatment Based on Religion

An employer may not make job decisions based on your religious beliefs (or lack thereof). For example, an employer may not refuse to hire Protestants, pass over Jews for promotion, or discipline Muslim employees more harshly than other employees. An employer also may not discriminate against employees because of their lack of religious beliefs: Atheists and agnostics are protected from religious discrimination as well. And, an employer may not favor employees of a particular religion. (This issue typically arises when an employer wants to hire only employees that share his or her faith.)

To prove discrimination, you must show that you were treated differently because of your religion. If your employer has flatly admitted religious bias, either generally or in the decision that went against you, this won't be hard to prove. For example, perhaps a manager has said, many times, that he thinks religion is foolish and that he would never knowingly promote a religious employee because they can't think for themselves. Or, maybe a manager has told a Sikh that he can't work in the sales department because customers might worry that he's a terrorist due to his turban.

Most of the time, however, direct evidence like this is hard to come by. Instead, the employee must build a case based on circumstantial evidence.

Example: Jane applies for a promotion. She is well qualified for the position, and her manager tells her the position is hers if she wants it. Jane thanks him, confiding that she prayed she would get the job, and believes that it is a divine sign that her decision to be more ambitious in her career was the right one. The manager appears to be very uncomfortable. Later in the day, the manager tells her that the hiring committee decided to go with another candidate. The employee who gets the promotion is not overtly religious.

Failure to Accommodate

An employer must accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would create undue hardship. Typical accommodations include scheduling changes (to allow an employee to observe the Sabbath, time off during the workday for prayer, or days off for important religious holidays) and changes to usual dress and grooming requirements (to allow an employee to wear religious garments or items or to relax the rules regarding hair length and styling). To learn more, see Reasonable Accommodation for Religious Beliefs.

To make a case for failure to accommodate, an employee must show that the accommodation was requested and would have been reasonable. If the employer claims that the requested accommodation would have created undue hardship, the employee will also want some evidence to counter that claim.

Example: Roger asks for permission to leave two hours early on Thursdays, to attend weekly religious studies at his church. He offers to make the time up by coming in early. His manager says he may not leave early; the company needs all hands on deck for the entire workday, and absences for personal reasons aren't fair to coworkers. However, several of Roger's coworkers have flexible schedules, one so he can attend his daughter's softball games and another to take classes at a local college and finish her degree. In this situation, the manager's claim that the accommodation is unreasonable starts to look a bit thin.

Steps to Take

If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your religion, your first step should always be to raise the issue directly within your company. Ask your manager why you were not promoted or why your performance was rated poorly right after you revealed your religious beliefs, for example. By talking to the person who made the decision, you will learn more about what really happened. What you learn may give you more evidence to support your claim; on the other hand, it may convince you that there were other reasons for the decision. Either way, it's a good idea to start at the source.

If you continue to believe religious discrimination was at work, your next step is to file an internal complaint with your company's HR department. Take a look at your employee handbook to find out the process for making a complaint of discrimination. If there's no complaint policy, simply go to whoever handles personnel issues and state that you believe you were treated differently because of your religion.

It's important to make a complaint within the company because that gives the company a chance to investigate and, if necessary, make things right. It's also important because, if you later file a discrimination lawsuit, it gives you proof that the company was on notice of the problem and didn't do anything about it. This could open the door for a larger award of damages.

If the company doesn't handle your complaint to your satisfaction, the next step is to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's fair employment practices agency. This is a necessary prerequisite to filing a lawsuit. The agency might investigate your claim, try to settle it, or simply issue you a "right to sue" letter, indicating that you have met the legal requirement of filing a charge and are free to file a lawsuit, if you wish.

If the administrative agency doesn't resolve the issue, the final step is filing a lawsuit. Of course, not every claim of discrimination is worth the time and money it will cost to pursue in court. An experienced employment lawyer can help you assess your claims and situation, and decide whether it makes sense to litigate your case.

Seek Legal Help

If you've suffered workplace discrimination based on your religious beliefs, it's a good idea to contact an attorney to explore your legal options. An attorney can help you file a charge with the EEOC and, if necessary, file a lawsuit in court.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Get Professional Help

Talk to a Wrongful Termination attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you