What are my rights as an employee to practice my faith and can my employer impose their religious values on their employees?
One of the greatest rights we have as citizens of the United States is the freedom to practice any religion. It is a fundamental right that is protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution. As a citizen, we are allowed to practice (or not practice) any religion we choose without government interference. However, where do we draw the line in the workplace in terms of voicing our religious beliefs and values? Is our employer allowed to impose their own religious beliefs onto us?
In California, religious discrimination is illegal and protected by the California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). It is illegal for an employer to treat employees any differently based on our religious backgrounds or require employees to change their religious values in order to remain employed. While the concept of treating others who practice a different religion seems like common sense, religious discrimination is still a fairly serious issue in the United States. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), there were 3,825 religious discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC in 2016. As a result, there was $10 million paid out in a settlement as a result of religion-based discriminatory acts by employers. The number of religious-based complaints reported to the EEOC has more than doubled from 1997 to 2016.
There are two different types of religious discrimination that are very similar to sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment. An example of quid pro quo harassment based on religious discrimination is refusing to give a promotion to an employee unless the employee attends church on Sundays. Another example of quid pro quo harassment based on religious discrimination is making an employee take off a hijab if he or she wants to work in the front of workplaces and be seen by clients. The other type of harassment based on religious discrimination is creating a hostile work environment. Some examples of this can be making fun of the practices of a particular religion that an employee practice or treating an employee differently after he or she asked for a reasonable accommodation to take a day off to observe a religious holiday. Another example of creating a hostile work environment can be teasing someone because he or she does not eat pork based on religious beliefs. In some cases, an employee who constantly speaks of his or her religious faith with the intent to “convert” other employees can also be seen as creating a hostile work environment. Further, employers are prohibited from forcing workers to engage in religious activities as a requirement for employment.
The California Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012 (WRFA) requires that employer must provide reasonable accommodation to employees to practice their religion. Such accommodation could be allowing an employee to wear a hijab at the workplace even though baseball caps or hats are prohibited. Another accommodation could be allowing an employee to switch shifts with a colleague if the employee needs to observe a certain holiday or allow employees to wear articles of clothing or jewelry affiliated with their religious practice. The accommodation is reasonable as long as it does not cause undue burden on the employer, cause a lack of staffing, or impose a financial hardship. An example of an unreasonable accommodation can be requesting an employer to allow certain religious attire if the attire causes safety issues in the workplace. The reasonableness of an accommodation can be argued in a variety of ways.
An employer is responsible for ensuring that harassment based on religious discrimination does not occur in the workplace. If you feel that you have been a target of religious discrimination, you should make a written complaint to your human resources department or management. Many incidents of religious discrimination go unreported because employees fear retaliation from their employer, such as losing their job, being demoting, being treated differently by their coworkers, or having the perpetrator discover that the employee complained and having to face further abuse or possible sabotage from the perpetrator. Retaliation is against the law in our country. Therefore, employees cannot be legally fired, disciplined, or demoted for filing a formal complaint with human resources for any incident of religious discrimination. Even if the employee is unsure of whether or not the act was one of religious discrimination and writes a formal complaint, he or she is protected from any sort of retaliation. If retaliation occurs, the employee should contact an experienced employment law office to learn about his or her rights.
Despite the fact that employees are not able to be discriminated against by their religious practice (or lack of religious practice), some religious organizations are exempt from the rule. If the organization or business is primarily religious, it is able to restrict its employment to those who are of the same faith as the organization or business or share the same values. This type of discrimination is called the “Bona Fide Occupational Qualification.” It is only legal if the job description requires that the individual be of a certain religion, such as a pastor or minister. While some religious organizations may try to use this defense to ensure all employees share the same religious beliefs as them, not all job positions require that a person be of a certain faith in order to be employed with the religious organization. As an example, a gardener or a janitor does not have to be Christian in order to work at a Christian church. The religious organization must show that practicing a certain religion is essential to performing the job duties of that position.
There are many different types of remedies that an individual who has been discriminated against can seek, such as back pay, being reinstated, front pay, punitive damages, compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees, and/or court costs. Religious discrimination is a serious offense and should not go unaddressed. If you feel that you may be a victim of religious discrimination, you should contact an experienced employment attorney.