Common Misconceptions About Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Common Misconceptions About Religious Discrimination in the WorkplaceReligious discrimination in the workplace can be a complex and sensitive issue. Several common misconceptions surround this topic. It’s important to dispel these misconceptions to promote a better understanding of the rights and responsibilities related to religious diversity in the workplace. Here are some common myths:

Myth #1: Religious discrimination only involves major religions.

Religious discrimination can affect individuals of any religious belief, including minority or less well-known religions. It is not limited to major or mainstream religions. According to 2022 research, although only one in 100 Americans identify with Islam, Muslims represented 23.3 percent of all complaints of religion-related discrimination to the EEOC in 2017, the last year this data was publicly available.

Myth #2: Religious accommodations are unreasonable or burdensome.

Employers are generally required to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs and practices unless it poses an undue hardship on the business. Many accommodations are practical and straightforward. In July 2023, the U.S. The Supreme Court unanimously held that the undue hardship defense to providing a religious accommodation requires showing that the proposed accommodation would cause a substantial burden in the overall context of the employer’s business, not just a “de minimis cost.”

Myth #3: Religious discrimination only occurs in hiring.

Religious discrimination can occur at various stages of employment, including hiring, promotions, job assignments, and terminations. It can also manifest through harassment or the denial of reasonable accommodations. For example, a Georgia pediatric healthcare system recently agreed to pay $45,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by an employee who was fired after refusing to obtain a flu vaccination on religious grounds.

Myth #4: Companies cannot allow prayer groups.

Companies can allow prayer groups as long as participation is voluntary and there are no employment-related consequences to participating or not participating. For example, if access to a supervisor who is involved in a prayer group leads to preferred assignments for an employee, other employees may have a claim for discrimination. If an employer forces an employee to participate, that company may be liable for  discrimination. Finally, if pressure to attend is applied by supervisors or co-workers, an employer may be liable for a hostile work environment.

Myth #5: An employer can freely express religious preferences in job postings.

Employers cannot express religious preferences in job postings or make employment decisions based on an applicant’s religious beliefs. This would violate anti-discrimination laws. However, according to the EEOC, “an employer whose purpose and character is primarily religious is permitted to lean towards hiring persons of the same religion.” This exemption releases religious organizations only from the prohibition on employment discrimination based on religion and does not apply to discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, disability, color, or age.

Myth #6: Religious clothing worn in the workplace is disruptive and should not be allowed.

Religious attire, such as head coverings or religious garments, is generally protected by anti-discrimination laws. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for religious dress practices unless it poses an undue hardship and doesn’t interfere with safety or professional standards. In September 2023, a Muslim worker at a Chipotle restaurant filed a federal lawsuit after her assistant manager “yanked off” her hijab after she repeatedly refused to show him her hair.

Myth #7: Discussing religious beliefs at work is always inappropriate.

While promoting religious tolerance, employers should be careful about creating an environment that is inclusive of diverse beliefs. However, it’s important to avoid promoting or endorsing a particular religion, and discussions should be respectful and voluntary. When consultancy group Pearn Kandola surveyed workers following Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Christianity about how comfortable they felt discussing their faith at work, 47 percent said they were uncomfortable discussing religious events at their employment.

Myth #8: Only practices required by an official religious organization are protected.

Protected religious practices include those required by an official religious organization and individual religious beliefs and practices sincerely held by an employee.

Myth #9: Employees can be forced to participate in religious activities.

Employees can decline to participate in religious activities or practices that go against their beliefs. Coercion or pressure to participate may constitute religious discrimination. For example, on May 24, 2023, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a law prohibiting employers from taking adverse employment action against employees who refuse to attend employer-sponsored meetings discussing religious or political issues.

Myth #10: Allowing religious accommodations constitutes favoritism.

Providing reasonable accommodations for religious practices is a legal requirement and does not imply favoritism. Employers should treat all employees fairly and consistently, make reasonable efforts to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, and ensure that religious accommodations are clearly addressed in their employee attendance policies to avoid claims of favoritism or discrimination.

Myth #11: A boss can require employees to work on Sundays – religious accommodations do not apply.

In 2019, a postal worker sued under Title VII after his employer refused to give him Sundays off to attend Evangelical church services, calling it an undue hardship because the workers’ colleagues complained about having to fill in for him or simply quit. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on June 30, 2023, SCOTUS overturned decades-old precedent when it ruled that employers must accommodate their employees’ religious observances unless they can prove that the accommodation substantially burdens their business operations.

Understanding the complexities of religious discrimination in the workplace is essential for fostering an inclusive and respectful work environment. Employers should proactively address potential issues, provide education and training, and create policies promoting religious diversity and accommodation.

Atlanta employers have a duty to understand what accommodations and adjustments they must make to accommodate your religious beliefs. At Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, our Atlanta religious discrimination lawyers hold employers responsible for failing to follow the religious discrimination laws regulating hiring, firing, promotion, and other employment opportunities. If you have been the victim of racial discrimination in Georgia, call us or fill out our contact form to schedule an initial consultation with an experienced racial discrimination attorney today.