Religious Discrimination and the Employer's Duty to Accommodate Religious Beliefs

Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act and many state laws prohibit employers from discriminating based on an individual's sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or affiliations. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments, as well as employment agencies and labor organizations.

The Civil Rights Act protects employees from various forms of discriminatory treatment based on their religion. Importantly, unlawful discrimination includes an employer's failure to accommodate an employee's religious belief, unless accommodation creates an undue hardship on the employer.

Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

The term "sincerely held religious beliefs" is a broad term encompassing not only organized religions, like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, but religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, or are only subscribed to by a small number of people. Even religions that seem illogical or unreasonable to others are covered, as long as an individual’s belief in it is sincere. An individual's religious beliefs or practices can also include moral or ethical beliefs about what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.

The law does not stipulate how an individual must demonstrate the sincerity of their religious beliefs. As employment lawyers, the evidence we consider includes the individual's actions that reflect those beliefs, whether the individual is consistent in applying the belief, and whether the belief is part of a comprehensive belief system or is an isolated teaching.

Employers must Accommodate Their Employees’ Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

This federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on religion, among other characteristics. A key aspect of this prohibition is the duty to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices.

Religious accommodation refers to any adjustment to the work environment that allows an employee to practice their religion or sincerely held religious beliefs. This duty arises when an employee's religious beliefs or practices conflict with a job requirement or workplace policy.

An employer must accommodate a religious practice unless it causes an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business. Until recently, the Supreme Court defined “undue hardship” in the religious context as little more than a minimal cost or burden on the operation of the employer's business. Religious accommodations that did not exceed the minimal cost threshold included flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions and job reassignments.

In June of 2023, however, the Supreme Court significantly changed what constitutes an "undue burden" for religious accommodations. The Court considered the case of Gerald Groff, a devout Christian who observes Sunday as a day of worship and rest.Mr. Groff drove a rural route for the USPS. He was initially hired with the understanding that he would not have to work on Sundays.However, the USPS later entered into a contract with Amazon to deliver packages, including on Sundays. Groff requested a religious accommodation to be exempted from Sunday work, which would have been an undue burden under the minimal cost analysis. When the USPS did not provide it, Mr. Groff resigned and filed suit.

The Supreme Court disavowed the minimal cost standard and instead emphasized that "hardship" must be substantial in relation to an employer’s business. This new interpretation means that an employer must demonstrate that the accommodation will substantially increase costs to its business.

Retaliation and the Intersection of Religious and Other types of Discrimination

It's important to note that religious discrimination often intersects with other forms of discrimination, such as race or national origin. For instance, prejudices against certain religious groups can also be associated with certain ethnicities or countries, further complicating the discrimination issue.

Moreover, Title VII prohibits retaliation against an individual who:

  • reports religious discrimination,
  • files a discrimination complaint,
  • requests religious accommodation or
  • participates in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

Such protections are in place to encourage individuals to come forward with their experiences without fear of reprisal.

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