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Religious Discrimination in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently filed suit against Abercrombie and Fitch stores for denying employment to a Muslim woman because she wore a headscarf, which violated the company’s “look policy.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the store’s decision was motivated by a refusal to accommodate the woman’s religious practice, which is sufficient to allow her to sue under federal employment discrimination law.

 

This case thrust the issue of religious discrimination in the workplace into the national spotlight, leaving many employers with questions about how to stay in compliance with federal discrimination laws.

Title VII on Religious Discrimination and Harassment

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. With respect to religion, the law applies not only to those belonging to traditional organized religions, but also to any employee or applicant who has “sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.”

 

Title VII prohibits employers from:

  • Discriminating with respect to any act of employment, such as hiring, firing, pay, layoffs, and others based on an individual’s religion
  • Harassing or tolerating harassment of a person based on his or her religious beliefs
  • Segregating based on religious practices, such as assigning a Muslim woman to a non-customer-facing role because she wears a headscarf due to actual or perceived customer preferences

Reasonable Accommodation

The law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs and practices, unless to do so would place a significant burden on the employer’s operations. One example of accommodation is offering scheduling flexibility to allow employees to attend religious services or fulfill other obligations.

 

Employers must also reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs or practices with regard to dress and grooming, unless to do so would place an undue hardship on operations. Examples include religious dress such as a Jewish yarmulke or a Muslim headscarf; grooming practices such as a Sikh beard; and observance of a religious prohibition against certain types of clothing.

Determining Undue Hardship

Accommodation of an employee’s religious practices may be seen as causing undue hardship to the employer’s operations if it

  • Is costly
  • Compromises safety
  • Infringes on the rights of other employees
  • Requires other employees to take on more than their share of potentially hazardous work

 

Employees also cannot be required to participate (or not participate) in a particular religious activity as a condition of employment.

Where can I find more information?

For more information on religious discrimination in the workplace, refer to the following resources: