Many of today’s employees have questions about the ability to express religious beliefs at work. Not being informed about your company’s policy could put your career on the line, and not knowing the law could mean experiencing unfair religious discrimination while on the job. The law makes it clear that employees are protected from discrimination based on religious beliefs, and this sometimes means that it is perfectly legal to express religious beliefs at work.

On the other hand, there are instances where expressing religious beliefs at work is not protected. Gray areas within the law also exist and many of these are under increasing debate in the news and abroad. The best way to confront issues of religious expression at work is to take a closer look at the provisions found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Religious Beliefs and the Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the foremost authority on federal law dealing with the expression of religious beliefs at work. It contains a number of protections for employees regarding discrimination based on race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex, gender, and religion. Employees are protected from discrimination in these protected categories in all forms of the employment process including, hiring, discharge, promotion, training, pay and benefits.

Title VII applies to all companies with 15 or more workers across the nation. For employees working in smaller businesses, some state law offers protection from religion-based discrimination, often with provisions patterned after Title VII.

Courts have outlined a number of requirements necessary to prove that the protections in Title VII are warranted for a particular situation. The courts use these elements to analyze whether a violation of the federal laws of employment discrimination has occurred. Providing sufficient evidence in support of each of these elements will allow courts to presume that you have experienced religious discrimination, unless your employer can prove otherwise.

First, an employee must show that he or she is a member of a protected class. For religious discrimination, this means showing that you are a member of or that you practice a particular religion.

You must also show that your employer has taken adverse action against you. This may be in the form of failing to promote you even though you are fully qualified, termination, failure to hire or cutting your pay or benefits because you have expressed your religious beliefs at work. It could also be in the form of harassment or differential treatment while on the job. Lastly, in the instance of religious discrimination, the adverse action could also be a failure to accommodate the expression of your religious practices while at work.

Failure to Accommodate Religious Beliefs Could Be Illegal

An employer’s refusal to allow a worker to express religious beliefs at work could be a violation of Title VII and other state employment discrimination laws. This is because Title VII requires employers to make accommodations for religious practice at work unless it would cause undue hardship to the business.  According to the the law, the accommodation provided must be reasonable and sufficient.

Common methods of reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs and expression include allowing religious garments to be worn in the workplace, allowing time off for religious practice, allowing an employee to swap shifts with another employee in order to attend religious ceremonies, allowing a separate room and time for an employee to pray and allowing the display of religious symbols, pictures or other items in the workplace.

However, an employer may not be required to allow an employee to express religious beliefs beliefs at work under certain circumstances. Mainly, if the expression would cause undue hardship to the company’s business, an employer is not required to accommodate it. According to the EEOC, an undue hardship is one that would cause more than a di minimus cost to the employer.

The meaning of ‘di minimus cost’ can go beyond just monetary costs. It can also include religious expressions which burden the conduct of a business such as interfering with workplace safety, decreasing company efficiency or impeding others in the workplace from completing jobs and tasks.  When an employee asserts that his or her employer has failed to accommodate a particular expression of religion at work, it is up to the employer to prove the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the business.

Religious Exemptions and Expression of Religion at Work

Employees wishing to express religious beliefs at work should also keep in mind that certain exemptions to the protections provided in Title VII do exist. In particular, these exemptions apply when the employer is a religious organization.

According to the EEOC, religious organizations are those whose “purpose and character are primarily religious.” such organizations are allowed to show preference to members of their own religion in certain employment practices such as hiring. However, this exemption does not allow religious organizations to discriminate based on race, color or any of the other protected categories noted in Title VII.

Can I express my religious beliefs as an employer?

Courts have ruled that even an employer can express religious beliefs at work. However, employers must be careful to refrain from any form of discrimination in doing so. In other words, an employer has the right to express religious beliefs at work so long as the beliefs are not made a condition of employment or expressed in such as way that participation in the religion becomes a requirement for employment.

Religious Discrimination Comes in Many Forms: Know Your Rights

Religious discrimination can come in a number of forms. An employer may treat an employee differently based on a particular religion or may terminate an employee based on their religious status. Also, an employer may fail to accommodate an employee who wishes to express religious beliefs at work. Each of these adverse actions could constitute a violation of federal law which prohibits religious discrimination and allows employees to express religion at work unless the employer can show that doing so causes an undue hardship to the business.