When Starbucks unveiled its minimalist cup design sans the religious references to Christmas last season, patrons responded with shock and amusement. “Cupgate,” as the Internet hailed the peculiar controversy, has grown to be somewhat of a modern-day case of political correctness gone viral. The situation does highlight the particularly large issues that loom just around the holidays concerning religious freedoms and the right to protect them or shirk them altogether.

That emphasis carries over into the employment discrimination law arena, where Christmas at work can sometimes be just as much of a challenge as a Starbucks cup debacle. There is a large difference, however. When religious freedoms are curtailed at work, anti-discrimination rights law can step in to invoke an employer’s liability to the tune of thousands of dollars in damages.

Clearly, Cupgate has nothing on the risk of getting sued for violating an employee’s right to religious freedom at work.

Employment Discrimination Law and Religion at Work

At the federal level, the go-to governance concerning the right to practice religion at work is always first and foremost Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law originally developed during the civil rights era when sentiments against social equality for African American citizens reached a tipping point, and organizers like Martin Luther King, Jr. helped usher in a new era of equal rights across the nation.

The law also emphasized protection for other traditionally excluded groups such as women and disabled workers, and it provided protection for the practice of religion at work as well. Currently, the right to practice religion without being discriminated against exists in all forms of employment, included hiring, termination, promotion, compensation and benefits. In addition, employers must be prepared to provide reasonable accommodation in support of an employee’s right to religion at work.

At the state level, too, freedom of religion is protected in workplaces across the country. In most states, religious discrimination laws mimic or at least closely resemble the federal Civil Rights Act. The main difference with state religious discrimination laws is that the minimum threshold for covered employers is usually less than what it is for federal laws. The Civil Rights Act requires employers to have at least 15 employees for coverage to apply while most states go as low as 1 to 5 employees for valid claims.

Do Employers Have a Right to Curtail Religious Freedom?

Recent episodes in the country’s unfolding LGBT employment discrimination rights saga may have many wondering, do employers have a right to curtail religious freedom? The closely related situation in Kentucky involving a familiar court clerk refusing to certify marriages between gay couples further illustrates the question of employer’s and employee’s rights concerning religion.

While the issue in Kentucky did not necessarily involve a question of employment discrimination – the main issue was whether the clerk could invoke First Amendment rights to refuse to do her job as an employee of the state – the issue is an excellent starting point for religious discrimination discussions. It stirs up the heart of religious discrimination issues, the tension between inner convictions and the operations of a public or private entity.

Freedom of Religion at Work for Employees

What’s important is the way that religious discrimination laws play out in workplaces across the nation. Employees do not have a carte blanche right to, say, hold religious ceremonies at work with the support and accommodation of an employer, but they do have the right to ensure, for instance, that the way they dress or groom themselves in connection with religious practices is protected and accommodated.

Points of controversy have been numerous since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Often, the main points of contention are in the way that employers respond to requests for accommodation or in the way that employers use bias against certain religious garb or grooming practices to exclude employment applicants.

It’s important to note, the accommodation an employer is required to provide in support of religious practice at work is not absolute. Federal law, and most state laws, require that the employee request only reasonable religious accommodation – the type that does not create undue burden on business operations. This could mean providing a separate room for a Muslim worker to hold prayer sessions, for example.

The Other Sign of the Coin: When Employers Assert Their Rights

An employer need not surrender all its duties and obligations in support of the practice of religion at work, says antidiscrimination law, but what does this mean? It means that just as religious freedom must be balanced against the separation of church and state, so anti-discrimination laws have their limits.

Most precisely, the ‘undue burden’ phrase that goes hand-in-hand with the amount of reasonable accommodation an employer must provided gives guidance about just how far an employer is obligated to go in support of religion at work. When a request is significantly inhibitive of business operations to the point of the extensive loss of time, money and effort, courts are likely to side with an employer, over and above the rights of individual to bring religion to work.

Religion at Christmas Time: Equality at Work

The Christmas party at work and related instances of religion in the workplace setting could see some shifting as the country, in true Starbucks fashion, begins to turn away from the notion of an all-Christian dialectic at Christmas-time. However, the law will stand as the final word on religious practice at work: discrimination against religion at work is illegal, and the practice of religion must be accommodated unless it unduly burdens a business.

This should serve as a guide to employers debating the shift in light of the significant costs and losses that go hand-in-hand with religious discrimination liability.