Religion (or the right to have none) is a very personal and serious matter to many in the United States. While the U.S. Constitution protects the free exercise of religion, there are always exceptions to this grant, and perhaps the most visible is in the workplace. Depending on the specific situation, employers are permitted to discriminate on certain grounds, and there are times when religion is one of them. However, there are many occasions on which someone’s religious beliefs may be used to unfairly mistreat someone else, and it can be difficult to distinguish between acceptable or protected discrimination, and actions which may give rise to an employment discrimination lawsuit.
Religious Freedom Must Be Balanced
Religion is one of the named characteristics that cannot be used for discriminatory purposes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This applies to any part of employment—including hiring, firing, and everything in between. It is important to keep in mind that ‘discriminatory purposes’ or behavior are very often not clear. It can be difficult to determine what crosses the proverbial line from harmless teasing (which is not a violation of the law) to harassment, which is. It is very common to be unsure as to whether your rights have been violated or not.
Something to remember before filing a charge is that there are occasions on which religious discrimination is acceptable under the law—for example, the truism that Catholic schools are permitted to openly admit a preference for Catholic employees. However, these are the exception, rather than the rule. Unless religion is a characteristic that goes toward someone’s alleged fitness to do the job, any attempt to favor those of a certain faith or to keep out those of another will not be looked upon favorably by the courts.
Accommodations For “Sincerely Held” Beliefs
The major crux of many alleged incidents of religious discrimination is that very often, an employer declines to make an accommodation for an employee’s “sincerely held” religious beliefs, despite this being a violation of Title VII. The general rule is that if an employee requests accommodation for religious beliefs, and it is not an undue hardship for the employer to grant that request, failure to do so can be a violation of the employee’s rights. While what constitutes an “undue hardship” will vary, if you can show that your request is reasonable and attainable, your employer may find themselves in legal trouble.
This was the fact pattern in a recent South Carolina case, EEOC v. J.C. Witherspoon, Jr. Inc, in which a logging company terminated a driver who had requested accommodations for his religious beliefs. Most notably, he observed the Sabbath not on Sunday, but from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. The company terminated the driver, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up his case, alleging that his rights were violated, and that granting the accommodation for Saturdays off would not have been an undue hardship on the logging company. Ultimately the case settled, but not every action brought under these facts might have done so.
Can An Employment Discrimination Lawyer Help You?
Because it is such a personal belief and so dear to many people, alleging discrimination based on religion (or lack thereof, if one is an atheist) can be a very difficult and tender topic. If you believe you have been discriminated against on the basis of your religious beliefs, it is a good idea to consult an experienced employment discrimination lawyer in order to ensure that the issue is handled appropriately. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has years of experience with these fraught issues, and will sit down with you to try and help work out yours.
Contact Hitchcock & Potts today to schedule a consultation.