Understanding Religious Discrimination at Work
EEO Leads Fight for Religious Rights to Supreme Court
Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely issue a ruling on an important case of religious discrimination in the workplace. While the details of this specific case, filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a California woman against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, are important, this event also serves as a perfect reminder to all EEO professionals that religious discrimination continues to plague many work environments – including the federal workplace.
The bottom line: Federal law forbids employers from denying a job to someone because of his or her religion (or lack of religion). Companies and government agencies also have a duty to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. The law also prohibits job segregation based on religion, such as assigning an employee to a non-customer contact position because of actual or feared customer preference.
Making the Workplace More Accommodating
According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are not allowed to discriminate against potential hires based on their religious belief or practice. While it’s legal to have a company policy against head coverings, if an employee needs to wear one for religious reasons, employers are required to make an accommodation, unless they can prove that it will create an "undue hardship" on their business. (For further details on religious discrimination in the workplace, the EEOC features a great primer on the agency’s website.)
A key part of the law is the requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodations to all workers. According to EEO legal experts, a reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his religion. These may include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, lateral transfers, and exceptions to dress or grooming rules.
Whether a particular accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer depends on the individual circumstances. If re-arranging schedules is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, the case could be made that a hardship would be caused by providing reasonable accommodation. Undue hardship also may be shown if the request for an accommodation violates others' job rights established through a collective bargaining agreement or seniority system.
Title VII, as we all know, also prohibits religious harassment of employees, such as offensive remarks about a person's religious beliefs or practices. Although the law doesn't make it illegal to tease someone by making offhand comments, harassment can be unlawful when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
It is also unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on religion or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under Title VII.
What Will The High Court Say About Religious Discrimination?
There are rooms filled with lawyers and legal scholars who spend countless hours trying to figure out exactly how the Supreme Court will rule of the myriad of cases before it each session. And the one involving the young woman who wasn’t hired by Abercrombie & Fitch because she was wearing a Muslim head scarf during the interview is no different.
Most legal experts, believe the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the EEOC and against Abercrombie & Fitch. While this decision won’t change how EEO offices with the federal government go about their day-to-day activities, a ruling in favor the EEOC’s suit would bring new attention to religious discrimination and reasonable accommodation efforts.
Also worth noting is the current social arguments over so-called “religious freedom” laws. Many states are debating legislation of this nature, Indiana and Arkansas are receiving the most attention.
It is entirely possible that state legislation regarding religion and businesses, as most of these pieces of legislation do, will eventually work its way into the employment practices of an organization. When that happens, the EEOC will no doubt step in to protect the rights and freedoms of all citizens to work without fear of harassment or discrimination.
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