Labor and Employment

Religious Discrimination in Employment

Updated by Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Learn your workplace rights when it comes to religious discrimination and reasonable accommodation.

Under federal law, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees or applicants based on their religion. Employers must also make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to practice their religious beliefs, unless it would cause the employer undue hardship.

Prohibited Discriminatory Practices

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Many states also have laws banning religious discrimination in the workplace, and some apply to smaller employers. (Select your state from the list at Your Rights Against Workplace Discrimination and Harassment to learn more about your rights under state law.)

Your employer may not discriminate based on religion in any aspect of employment, including interviews, hiring, benefits, promotions, transfers, discipline, and termination. This means your employer may not, for example, refuse to promote Muslims, require all employees to participate in religious or spiritual practices at work, or fire employees who are atheists. Title VII also prohibits harassment based on religion, such as teasing and belittling comments based on your religious beliefs.

Your employer may not retaliate against you for complaining of religious harassment or discrimination, whether you complain within the company or to an outside agency, such as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (For more information, see our article on filing an EEOC Claim for Retaliation.)

What is Religion?

Not all strongly held beliefs are religious and, therefore, protected from discrimination. To qualify, your beliefs must be sincere and meaningful, and must occupy a place in your life similar to that held by “God” in a traditional religion. Your beliefs must encompass ultimate ideas about life, purpose, and death that are as strong as traditional religious beliefs.

Political or economic beliefs are not religious, no matter how strongly and sincerely held. Moral and ethical beliefs may count as religious for purposes of Title VII, but courts typically will look for some evidence of belief in a divine power to make beliefs religious.

Reasonable Accommodation

Under Title VII, employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations to allow them to practice their religions. A reasonable accommodation is a change to an employer’s usual policies, schedules, or requirements that will allow an employee to engage in religious observances and practices. Examples of reasonable accommodation include:

  • allowing flexible work schedules so that an employee can attend religious ceremonies, pray, or break a fast
  • providing floating or optional holidays to allow an employee to observe a Sabbath or religious holiday
  • permitting voluntary shift changes or work assignment substitutions among employees, or
  • modifying a dress code policy to allow employees to wear religious garb or items, or to observe religious grooming requirements (such as not cutting one’s hair).

If you need an accommodation for a religious reason, you should let your employer know what you need and why. Give plenty of notice, so your employer will have time to consider the change you want. Your employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would create undue hardship.

In the context of religious accommodation, anything more than a minor administrative cost can qualify as an undue hardship. For example, courts have found that an employer might be required to pay another employee overtime to allow a religious employee to take an occasional day off for religious observance, but not to pay overtime on a regular basis (for example, once a week).

Money is not the only measure of undue hardship. An employer does not have to provide an accommodation that would unduly affect morale, infringe on the rights of other employees, or create safety concerns. For example, an employer would not have to:

  • force other employees to change their work schedules to accommodate your religious practices
  • violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement or seniority system in order to accommodate your religious practices, or
  • allow you to wear religious clothing that poses a safety hazard (such as wearing flowing garments around heavy machinery).

Remedies for Violations

If your employer discriminates against you on the basis of your religion, you may be entitled to several different types of relief. For example, you might receive back pay or front pay if you lost wages—or will continue to lose wages—due to discrimination. Or, if you were denied a position due to discrimination, the court might order your employer to hire you for a certain position, promote you to a certain position, or reinstate you to your old job. Title VII also allows you to recover your attorneys’ fees.

If you believe that you've been discriminated against on the basis of religion in your employment, an employment discrimination attorney can explain your options. (For more on this topic, see our article on finding and hiring an employment discrimination lawyer.)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can my employer transfer me to a different position because of my religious practices?
  • Does my employer have to provide flex-time so that I can attend religious services?
  • Can my employer require me to be Catholic in order to teach at a Catholic school?
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