The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees two aspects of religious freedom: first, that there will not be a government-sanctioned religion and second, that Americans can follow any religion they like. Laws at the federal and state levels also provide more clarification as to the issue of religion. In a practical sense, all of these laws come down to the fact that private and public employers alike cannot discriminate against a person’s religion when making hiring decisions, and employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs. Because every business benefits from hiring a diverse range of people from many cultural backgrounds, it’s a good idea for employers to have a firm grasp of a few principles when it comes to religion in the workplace.
1. Accommodate an Employee’s Religion
Employers are required to accommodate an employee’s religion to a reasonable extent, meaning as long as accommodations are not too burdensome for the employer. Examples of common and reasonable accommodations include:
- Agreeing that an employee does not have to work on Sabbath
- Modifying the business dress code to permit clothing related to the religion
- Modifying or adjusting grooming requirements for religious exceptions (hair length, for example)
- Taking breaks during each work day for prayer (and possibly even using business facilities for it)
- Allowing absences from employer workshops or programs if prayers or beliefs expressed by the employer in such meetings conflict with an employee’s beliefs
- Granting employees permission to chat about their religion with colleagues (to a certain extent)
Undue hardship occurs when a business would have to hire another employee or pay another employee increased wages on a constant basis to accommodate one employee’s religious beliefs. It also occurs in many cases if it affects safety, efficiency and general employee morale (for example, if an organization’s promotional structure would be affected). Examples of situations in which religious accommodation would be too burdensome for the employer include:
- Granting an employee a whole holy month off
- Permitting grooming exceptions even when it would pose a safety or sanitary hazard (for example, saying that an employee who works as a fast food cook does not need to wear hairnets for religious reasons)
- Allowing major work duties to go undone (an example is when a disc jockey declines to play a certain type of music because it conflicts with his or her religious beliefs)
However, if at all possible, an employer should try to make provisions for employees’ religious beliefs.
2. Work to Build a Pleasant Environment for All
A common form of religious discrimination happens when an employer knowingly enables an antagonistic atmosphere for employees who belong to a certain religion(s). For instance, when several co-workers habitually make fun of another employee due to his faith, the workplace atmosphere becomes threatening. This type of discrimination is not about a mere disagreement on religious grounds; it’s more of a continual pattern of harassment (including insults, derogatory words, jokes and threats). When an employer permits such conduct, it opens itself up to lawsuits.
3. Hire Fairly
In some cases, there is simply no way around religion. For example, a Jewish temple that is interviewing rabbi candidates cannot consider Catholics; only Jewish people can be considered. Similarly, a radio station that plays mostly rap music and rock and roll needs to hire a disc jockey who is able to play such music. In most cases, however, religion cannot factor into hiring decisions.
Although religion at work is a topic that often finds itself in court and is not always black and white, the general idea is to treat all workers fairly. Hire folks based on their skills and abilities, make reasonable accommodations and cultivate a friendly work atmosphere for everyone. Encourage employees to talk with you or human resources if they encounter problems.
The content on our website is only meant to provide general information and is not legal advice. We make our best efforts to make sure the information is accurate, but we cannot guarantee it. Do not rely on the content as legal advice. For assistance with legal problems or for a legal inquiry please contact you attorney.