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 requires employers to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, as long as it doesn’t create an undue hardship.
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. Many states have their own laws prohibiting religious discrimination at work, which may apply to smaller employers. To find out whether your state is among them, select it from the list on our Workplace Discrimination and Harassment page.
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. 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.
An employee need not belong to a traditional, mainstream religion to be protected; sects, offshoots, and small groups are also covered. Even employees whose religious beliefs diverge from the teachings of the faith to which they claim allegiance are protected. For example, if you belong to a progressive Catholic church—which has different views on issues like women’s ordination, celibacy, and gay rights than the Vatican—you are still protected from discrimination, even though your beliefs differ from the official doctrine of the Catholic Church.
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.
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 might tell an employer that it goes against their religious beliefs to cover or remove their tattoos and piercings, as required by the company’s dress code. 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, the employer might argue that the employee’s request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief.
Ultimately, the question of whether an employee has a sincerely held religious belief is determined on a case-by-case basis after looking at all of the facts and circumstances. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency that enforces Title VII—has enumerated some factors that might indicate that an employee’s professed religious belief is not sincerely held:
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 is so severe or pervasive as to create 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 religious 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. See our article on reasonable accommodations for religion in the workplace.