Just as employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, gender sexual preference, or disability, they also may not discriminate due to religious preferences. Employers are not allowed to treat employees more or less favorably simply because of the religious beliefs or practices of the employee and may not impose more—or even different—work requirements because of religious beliefs. Employees may never be forced to participate in a specific religious activity as a condition of their employment. Unless it would create a significant hardship in the workplace, employers are required to offer “reasonable” accommodations to employees who engage in specific religious practices.
In other words, suppose an employee needed a certain time off in order to participate in a religious practice; the employer would be expected to allow flexible scheduling in order to allow the employee to do so. Modifications of dress codes and grooming requirements might be necessary in some instances, for example for an employee whose religion required wearing a beard or wearing specific clothing. If accommodating the employer’s religious beliefs would lead to significant hardship for the employer including excessive administrative costs, diminished efficiency in the workplace, an infringement upon the rights of other employees, impairment in workplace safety or if those accommodations conflicted with other laws or regulations, then the employer is likely off the hook.
If other employees are engaging in harassing behaviors toward an employee who has specific religious beliefs then the employer is responsible for ensuring those harassing behaviors stop. Employers must implement anti-harassment policies and have policies and procedures in place which specifically address the process for reporting, investigating and correction of religious harassment in the workplace. The laws for religious discrimination are different from those for race or age discrimination in that religion tends to be a specific set of beliefs or practices rather than an obvious physical characteristic.
Employers are not allowed to hire only those who have similar religious beliefs, and may not discriminate against those who are not religious. This means that an employer who is a practicing Baptist is not allowed to discriminate against an atheist regarding hiring, firing and promotions simply because the employee’s beliefs are radically different from those of the employer. What about the employee who offers a sincere “God Bless You” to a sneezing atheist? Has the employee committed—knowingly or unknowingly—religious discrimination? This is a very slippery slope and it can be extremely difficult to balance the rights of those who believe with the rights of those who do not share those beliefs.
A recent case found that British Airways breached an employee’s religious rights when they banned her from wearing a crucifix yet a nurse who was banned from wearing a cross remained banned due to “health and safety” issues. The issue of religion is both a controversial subject as well as a very subjective issue therefore the rulings regarding those who have filed against their employer on the grounds of religious discrimination are all over the map. If you feel you are the victim of religious discrimination, it is important to contact a knowledgeable attorney who can help you explore your options and preserve your rights.