Religion in the Workplace: Should Employers' Religious Practices be Imposed on Employees?

In different parts of the world, individuals have various views on religion or spiritual belief, be it atheistic, dogmatic, academic, indifferent or somewhere in between. Managing these various points of view with respect and equity can create a culture where employees are happier and more productive, while also making legal compliance easier for the employer.

In our society today, employers often discriminate against employees or applicants based on their religious beliefs. This means that an employer can refuse to hire anyone who does not share their faith, or require background checks only for Muslim employees.

    This has been properly identified. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "Title VII has a violation, that is, when an employer or supervisor explicitly or implicitly coerces an employee to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of receiving a job benefit or privilege or avoiding an adverse employment action.”

For instance, in 2018 a jury awarded $5.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 employees of United Health Programs of America, Inc. finding that the employees were forced to engage in a variety of religious practices at work, including prayer, religious workshops and spiritual cleansing rituals and that at least one employee was fired for opposing these practices. These variations also include employees who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.

Religious coercion as a breach of fundamental human rights

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 of the United States requires employers to prohibit discrimination based on and reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious, ethical and moral beliefs or practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

The obligation to accommodate religious practice arises from the nature of religion. Unlike the other characteristics protected by discrimination laws, such as race, age, or gender, religion is not a trait one is born with, but a system of beliefs. And, unlike other protected traits, religion sometimes requires particular behavior while adherents are at work, such as prayer; observing certain holidays; wearing specified items, types of clothing, or hair styles; or professing one's faith to others.

The focal point of the Fundamental Human Rights as well as other similar laws is that employers are required to take their employees' religion into account when making job decisions. Most work places have to recognize that some employees have no religious affiliation. According to a 2020 Gallup study, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has almost tripled since 2000, based on a three-year data set collected each decade, with younger generations more likely to have no religious affiliation. 

It is outrightly against a persons freedom of worship, when an employer requires an employee to engage in any behavior or observe any religious practice that would conflict with the employee’s own religious beliefs. For example, an employer may not demand that an atheist employee attend company non-denominational Christian prayer sessions. However, the same employer might be able to compel a reluctant Christian employee to attend the prayer sessions if doing so conflicted only with the employee’s preference, but not with the employee’s individual religious beliefs.

There are obviously instances where it would seem difficult to draw the lines. Therefore, modifications to workplace practices, policies or procedures, such as flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions, swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers, are a few examples of how an employer might accommodate an employee's religious beliefs, practices and observances.

If you ever think, that you were treated unfairly in the workplace on the basis of your religious beliefs, you may be able to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC, which will investigate your charge and either sue the employer or give you the option of doing so. These cases can be quite complex and typically benefit from the advice and counsel of a skilled employment law attorney.

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