State and federal anti-discrimination laws include religion as a protected category. Broadly speaking, an employer may not treat an employee differently based on that employee’s religious faith. In practice, there are many issues that arise when applying this rule to real-life situations.
Hiring and Promotion
Potential discrimination begins with the hiring and promotion process, where a candidate’s religion may not be used as a basis to disqualify him or her from the position. Where this gets tricky is when a job applicant’s religion potentially interferes with her or his ability to perform job duties. In such cases, employers are expected to look for ways to reasonably accommodate religious requirements. For example, it may be possible to schedule an employee’s hours to exclude Saturdays or Sundays without significant disruption to the company’s operation.
Sometimes an employer must make a judgment call as to whether it is possible to eliminate or reassign to someone else a problematic duty, such as the case of an obstetrician-gynecologist whose religion does not allow him or her to perform specific procedures. These cases can go either way, depending on whether the contested duty is a substantial part of the job and the cost and trouble to the employer that would result from having to make alternative arrangements.
An employee’s religious beliefs often dictate appearance and form of dress and may require a modification of the employer’s dress code. This is another type of situation where the extent to which the employer must accommodate depends on how crucial the dress code is to substantive job performance.
Some dress requirements cannot be waived without compromising safety. For instance, a construction worker cannot perform her job duties wearing a skirt. When safety equipment such as a helmet or goggles is required, employees with beards or headgear that interferes with proper placement are not able to work.
On the other hand, if the dress code’s intention is purely cosmetic, most employers are likely to be required to allow a reasonable adaption. However, exceptions may apply here as well. If the employee’s appearance is a crucial part of the job, modifications may not be feasible.
One exception where adherence to a particular religion is allowed to be a condition of employment is when the employer itself is a religious institution, such as a place of worship or a religious school. However, even in such cases, scrutiny will be given to the question of whether religious adherence is relevant to the job. While a parochial school is justified in examining the religious doctrine and observance of a potential religion instructor, the same requirements would not be considered reasonable for a person interviewing for a janitorial position.
Company Policy and Disparate Impact
In addition to direct discrimination where a religious employee is disadvantaged in hiring and promotion, companies can be found guilty of disparate impact discrimination. This happens when a company enforces a policy that disproportionately affects employees belonging to a particular religion and refuses to make modifications or exceptions to this policy.
A third type of discrimination is when the company allows or encourages a work environment that is hostile to employees professing certain religions. A hostile environment can form when an employee is threatened, abused or harassed based on his or her religion. One insult or mere expressions of disagreement from co-workers will not rise to the level required for a claim of discrimination. However, acts and words of intimidation and abuse that are severe or ongoing are more likely to be unlawful. An employer that is or should reasonably be aware of the situation and does not take immediate action to correct it can be held liable for religious discrimination.
It is important for all employers to be aware that religious practice is a protected category and that discrimination on this basis can result in lawsuits and administrative claims. Figuring out whether you are required to accommodate a specific practice involves assessing whether the proposed changes are reasonable and the degree of impact that making them would have on the regular operation of your business.
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