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Can A Religious Organization Discriminate?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, gender/sex, religion, and national origin. However, there is an exception to this; religious organizations are permitted to discriminate on the basis of their religion. While this may seem inappropriate, there are reasons to allow it—but if you are discriminated against unfairly, you still have the right to seek compensation.

Free Exercise of Religion

Religious organizations exist because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly allows the free exercise of religion. In general, religious organizations revolve around the propagation of one faith. But, more specifically, they meet three criteria.

  • Operating daily with religion as a primary focus
  • Articles of incorporation or other means of establishing oneself which cite a religious purpose
  • Generally being a for-profit organization

Each case is different and there are multiple factors that a court will consider, but these are the major issues.

It’s important to keep in mind that religious organizations can still only discriminate on the basis of religion—any discriminatory treatment based on other protected characteristics still opens up a religious employer to potential liability. If you suspect that you have been subjected to adverse employment action by your religious employer, on the basis of any other characteristic, you may file a complaint with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC).

Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications

One other issue that you may have in dealing with a religious organization—and in rare cases, with a non-religious employer as well—is the question of whether religion is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) or not. A BFOQ occurs when an employer can establish that it is absolutely necessary for their business to discriminate on the basis of religion, sex, or national origin. An example would be a company that deals in national security issues refusing to hire non-U.S. citizens, so as to safeguard classified information.

If you are discriminated against on the basis of religion (or lack thereof), the employer must show that doing so is “reasonably necessary” to the normal operation of their business, or they open themselves up to liability. BFOQs are usually construed very narrowly—more narrowly than a religious organization’s right to discriminate—but it’s important to understand the difference so that you can best attack the issue if you are discriminated against.

Contact An Employment Discrimination Attorney

While religious organizations do have the right to discriminate on the basis of religion only, this does not give them a pass to discriminate in any other manner. If you have been mistreated by a religious employer, consulting an attorney is a good idea. The South Carolina employment discrimination lawyers at Hitchcock & Potts are well versed in these types of cases and are ready to put that experience to work for you. Contact our offices today to set up a consultation.

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