What Is Religious Discrimination?

Definition & Examples of Religious Discrimination

Employees discussing project in an office.

 svetikd / Getty Images

Religious discrimination is the adverse treatment of an employee based on their religious beliefs or practices. Federal law prohibits discrimination at work based on religion.

Find out what counts as religious discrimination as well as what steps employers must take to prevent it.

What Is Religious Discrimination?

Religious discrimination is the disparate treatment of an employee because of their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs.

Making hiring or firing decisions based on someone's religious practices constitutes religious discrimination, as does making terms or conditions of employment (such as promotions or transfers) based on religion.

Religious discrimination applies to organized religions such as Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as other religions. It also applies to moral beliefs that are not religious but held as strongly and sincerely as a religious faith. It's also possible that an employer might discriminate against an employee for the lack of certain religious beliefs.

Personal preferences or social, political, or economic beliefs may be held strongly but those are ideas, not religious beliefs.

How Does Religious Discrimination Work?

In religious discrimination, an employer treats an employee, or group of employees, poorly due to their religious beliefs or practices. This adverse treatment may take many forms, including harassment and even dismissal.

Making employment dependent on religious activity is also religious discrimination. For example, requiring employees to attend religious services (or prohibiting them from attending religious services).

Religious discrimination is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964. According to this Act, employers may not hire, fire, or segregate employees based on religious belief. Nor can they make conditions of employment based on religion. Conditions of employment include decisions about promotions, job transfers, attire not in the dress code that is required by religious beliefs (such as a head covering), and providing the time necessary for religious practice.

Preventing Religious Discrimination

An employer cannot consider religious beliefs in any employment action involving hiring, firing, choice assignments, lateral moves, and so forth. Changes to working hours must accommodate religious practices as well.

Employers are required to enforce a religious discrimination-free workplace in which employees are able to practice their religious beliefs without harassment. Employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Generally, an employer may not place more restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency.

Employers are required to provide a workplace in which religious harassment of employees is not allowed. They can do this by:

  • Implementing an anti-harassment policy
  • Instituting a harassment complaint investigation policy
  • Regularly conducting anti-harassment training and testing for all employees
  • Creating the expectation and the supportive culture that provides a harassment-free workplace
  • Proactively reinforcing and enforcing the behavior that is expected

During Job Interviews

During an interview with a potential employee, asking any questions that cause them to discuss religious beliefs may be considered religious discrimination. 

Also, if you ask any questions that force your prospect to admit the need for religious accommodation after hire, you may have discriminated against the prospective employee.

It is lawful, however, to tell the candidate the required working hours of the position and ask whether the candidate is able to work the required hours.

Accommodation for Religious Practices

In addition to prohibiting discrimination, the Act also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee.

For example, reasonable accommodation can include providing:

  • Flexible paid holidays so employees can attend services
  • Flexible schedules so employees can attend religious events
  • Paid or unpaid time off for religious observances
  • The opportunity for employees to trade scheduled shifts
  • The right for employees to wear religion-required head coverings regardless of the employer's workplace dress code
  • The opportunity to offer mandatory prayers at proper times of the day
  • Job reassignments and lateral moves
  • For prospective hires, an interview schedule that accommodates religious practices

Religious accommodation is not required if it causes the employer undue hardship. An employer can claim undue hardship if the accommodation interferes with legitimate business interests.

Some examples of undue hardship include violating workplace safety, infringing on the rights of other employees, or an undue burden of cost.

Retaliation and Religious Discrimination

Retaliating against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on religion is against the law. Also, employers can't retaliate against someone who files a discrimination charge or participates in an investigation related to religious discrimination.

Religious discrimination complaints are handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is responsible for enforcing federal laws on discrimination.

Key Takeaways

  • Religious discrimination is the adverse work treatment of an individual based on religious beliefs or practices.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents employers from discriminating based on religion.
  • Employers cannot hire, fire, or make an employee's work conditional on religious beliefs or practices, nor can they retaliate against someone for pointing out religious discrimination.
  • The Act also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees to practice their faith, including permitting head coverings and time for prayers, if it can be done without undue hardship.