In today’s contentious environments, the issue of religion can become fraught with concerns about infringing upon someone’s First Amendment rights. However, there is a fine line between appropriately regulating the behavior of employees in the workplace and restricting one’s right to free speech and expression. It is imperative that you be aware of when that line has been crossed.
Religious discrimination can be alleged against anyone who has a sincerely held ethical or moral belief – in other words, not only against those who belong to organized religions such as Christianity, Islam or Judaism. It is, in its simplest form, treating someone differently or singling them out due to their choice of religion, and it is prohibited in all areas of the workplace, from interviewing to hiring to promoting. The most common form of ‘singling out’ is harassment or teasing that goes beyond what a reasonable person would consider acceptable.
It is important to note, however, that discrimination can be more subtle. For example, an employer may not transfer an employee or deprive them of a position because of visible religious attire or grooming. If a man who is a member of the Sikh religion, requiring him to wear a turban at all times, he may not be deprived of a position interacting with customers because an employer fears Islamophobia. Such an act would be considered discriminatory because the employee would be losing a benefit solely due to their religion.
What Are Reasonable Accommodations?
The crux of most allegations of discrimination tends to be the issue of accommodations, and what is reasonable for the business and what is not. Generally, accommodations are held to be reasonable unless they would cause “more than a minimum interference” or an “undue hardship” to the employer’s business. Undue hardship can be defined in numerous ways, not only in terms of finance – for example, if a religious prohibition would compromise worker safety, or infringes upon the rights of other employees, it will usually be characterized as unduly burdensome. The general aegis of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is to enforce the right of religious expression without causing other rights to be subordinated.
It is also important to note that an employee generally has the right to freedom from religion in the workplace, as well. If an employee is atheist or agnostic, they have the right to work for a religious institution if hired, and they have the right to exempt themselves from any suggested religious activity in the workplace. Both sides of religious freedom are protected, so to speak, by enforcing this regulation. Most agree it is simply good public policy to allow everyone at one’s workplace to worship as they see fit, as long as it does not interfere with others’ rights to do so.
Contact An Employment Law Attorney
If you still have questions regarding a potentially discriminatory practice of your employer’s, it is best to speak with an attorney well versed in employment discrimination law. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has been practicing at his Charleston firm of Hitchcock & Potts for many years, and is ready and able to answer your questions. Contact us today at 843-577-5000 to make an appointment.