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Identifying and Preventing Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

What constitutes religious discrimination in the workplace?

If a company treats its employees differently based on their stated religion or religious beliefs and practices, that’s religious discrimination. If employees request an accommodation (a change in a workplace rule or policy, for example) based on their religious beliefs and they are ignored, this can be considered religious discrimination as well.

Even treating employees differently because of their lack of religious beliefs can be regarded as discriminatory behavior.

Legally, religious discrimination is covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

In addition to being illegal, religious discrimination can take a severe toll on an employee’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being and create an extremely hostile work environment for all employees, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Religious discrimination in the workplace can take many forms and be present in every phase of the employment cycle. This includes the hiring process, promotion opportunities, salaries, the firing process, employee benefits, and even participation in team-building and other social activities at work.

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What Do Religious Beliefs Entail?

Religious discrimination doesn’t just apply to major organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) equally protects other, less common, but equally sincerely held religious beliefs both ethical and moral.

Every employee has the right to exercise their religion. Activities such as engaging in prayer, wearing certain pieces of religiously significant clothing, celebrating holidays, and even dietary preferences count as basic employee rights.

Any moral, philosophical, or ethical beliefs rooted in religion is also protected by the aforementioned Civil Rights Act. However, it’s important to note that the law against religious discrimination does not cover political beliefs that aren’t also philosophical beliefs or rooted in religion.

Additionally, any lack of religion, such as atheism, also needs to be respected. Atheists or employees belonging to different religions are not obligated to take part in any collective worship.

Insisting that employees participate in certain religious ceremonies is considered an infringement on their rights to not practice religion in any capacity.

 

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What Counts as Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?

Any form of harassment or insistence on participating (or not participating) in certain religious practices is considered discriminatory. Additionally, a refusal to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices (unless the accommodation represents a severe burden on the operations of the company) is not an option.

Harassment

Harassment based on an employee’s religious beliefs or practices in the form of offensive remarks, humiliation, or other offensive behavior. The religious practices in question include dress or grooming. Insulting employees’ religious clothing such as headscarves, yarmulke, or grooming habits, including facial hair and hairstyles, is considered discriminatory.

To make it clear, innocent teasing, jokes, or offhand comments aren’t strictly prohibited by law. On the other hand, severe or frequent behavior of this sort insults an employee’s dignity and contributes to a hostile work environment.

Since there is no real way to tell where the line should be drawn and what a person finds offensive, it’s best to stay clear of all types of jokes and comments related to religious affiliation while at work.

Refusal to Accommodate Religious Beliefs and Practices

Supposedly invisible microaggressions covered up as regular office practices targeting a person’s religious beliefs are also against the law.

In 2019, a Muslim woman sued the company Fast Track for refusing to hire her due to her religious practices. 26-year-old Shahin Indorewala asked for two five-minute prayer brakes during her day. She offered to subtract the 10 minutes from the two-hour lunch break available to all employees.

The prayer breaks would have occurred at the same time every day, preventing any scheduling difficulties in the future. Her request likely didn’t impose an unreasonable burden on the employer, yet it was denied, which is why it can be considered an act of religious discrimination.

On the other hand, the employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices if the act represents a burden to the operations of their business. The employer is only required to make adjustments that the law decides are reasonable. Slight modifications to the work schedule and voluntary shift swaps typically count as reasonable adjustments, as do certain task reassignments. Conscientious objection to abortion in some Christian doctors, for example, is one such case of job reassignment.

However, before an employer becomes liable to lawsuits, the employee (or applicant) is required to notify the employer of their needs. Dialogue between the employer and the employee/applicant needs to take place so that the employer is given enough time and information to consider accommodation options.

If the employer (and in the case of a lawsuit, the law) decides that the accommodation requirements are too severe, they are not required to provide them. Some reasons why an accommodation might be considered too burdensome on an employer include increased cost, safety issues, or causing damage to other employees.

Hiring, Firing, and Employment Practices

This type of discrimination involves the company making employment decisions (such as wrongful termination) based on someone’s faith or lack thereof. Discriminatory behavior can consist of the following employer behaviors:

  • Refusing to hire individuals of a certain religion.
  • Having stricter promotion requirements for members of a certain religion.
  • Imposing different work requirements on an employee because of their religious beliefs or practices.

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What Does a Religious Discrimination Claim Look Like?

Treating a person unfavorably due to their sincerely held religious beliefs is illegal and opens businesses up to lawsuits.

Work-related religious discrimination claims are on the rise and are projected to become a severe problem for employers in the near future.

One example of a well-documented claim of religious discrimination is when the EEOC filed a suit against the North Carolina-based Food Lion store for failing to accommodate and subsequently firing an employee who was a Jehovah’s Witness.

The employee needed to attend church services on Thursdays and Sundays and was unable to work on those days. After being transferred to a different store, the new manager refused to accommodate the employee’s religious practices and the employee lost their job. Food Lion was forced to pay a $50,500 settlement to the employee and amend its employment practices.

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Insurance as Financial Protection in the Case of Discrimination Claims

Religious discrimination claims are a serious issue and every company should strive to create an accepting environment for its employees regardless of religious denomination.

However, when such claims do occur, having the right risk management plan in place could allow your company to transfer the financial stress of these allegations and, more importantly, deal with them ethically and fairly.

The two insurance policies that will respond to religious discrimination claims are EPLI (employment practices liability insurance) and D&O (directors & officers insurance).

EPLI serves to protect the business from employment-related claims of harassment, wrongful termination, or failure to promote due to the employee’s religious beliefs. The EPLI policy will pay for the legal costs of defending against these allegations and cover the settlement should one be reached.

Additionally, if employees bring their concerns to the company’s management, they’ll want to be heard and understood. If, on the other hand, they feel that they are being ignored, or that leadership isn’t doing enough to prevent discrimination, they may become angry and frustrated and decide to sue.

In such cases, executives and board members may be held personally responsible, especially if it’s alleged that their actions have contributed to the claimed religious discrimination.

A D&O policy will respond to protect the company and the personal assets of its leadership by paying for the defense costs and damages (awards and settlements) that result from such claims.

It’s considered good practice to bundle D&O and EPLI policies into one seamless package to avoid gaps in management liability coverage.

To get a better understanding of how to protect your company from discrimination claims and other employment issues, you can reach out to one of our expert brokers at any time to secure the right coverage at the best price.

Despite unpredictable court decisions, treating applicants and employees with respect and judging them solely based on their qualifications and performance remains the safest course of action when dealing with potential cases of discrimination, religious or otherwise.

A failure to adhere to these rules can create a hostile work environment and often leads to expensive lawsuits and severe reputational damage.