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What is Religious Discrimination?

Legal content fact checked by Charles E. Joseph

Your questions about workers’ rights, answered

Religious discrimination violates your rights. Employers cannot treat job applicants or employees less favorably because of their religious beliefs – or a lack of religious beliefs. 

But what is religious discrimination? What is the penalty for religious discrimination? Are there exemptions to religious discrimination laws?

Keep reading to learn more about the definition of religious discrimination and your protections under religious discrimination laws.

What is religious discrimination?

Religious discrimination means mistreating someone because of their religious beliefs.

At work, religious discrimination can include refusing to hire a Muslim job applicant for their beliefs, firing someone for celebrating Jewish holidays, or refusing to promote someone because they are an atheist. 

In the workplace, religious discrimination laws protect job applicants and employees from discrimination based on religion.

What is religious discrimination in the workplace?

Religious discrimination in the workplace occurs when an employer treats employees unfavorably because of their religious beliefs.

It can include refusing to hire a job candidate because of their religion, firing an employee for their religious beliefs, or refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation for religious practice.

If an employer fires you or refuses to hire you because of your religious beliefs, that qualifies as religious discrimination. Victims of religious discrimination can file a lawsuit against their employer. 

What is considered religious discrimination?

Treating a person unfavorably because of their religious beliefs is a form of religious discrimination. Religious discrimination can also include treating someone unfavorably because of their association with someone who practices a religious belief. 

In the workplace, it is also illegal to harass someone because of their religion. If an employee treats you unfavorably because of your religion, you can file a claim.

What is the law against religious discrimination?

At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from religious discrimination. However, Title VII only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees. It also includes a 180-day statute of limitations to file a charge. 

State and local laws can provide additional religious discrimination protections. 

What is the penalty for religious discrimination?

Religious discrimination violates your rights. A court can grant you back pay, front pay, and damages if you experience religious discrimination.

Depending on your state, you can receive punitive damages, which punish the employer for not preventing discrimination, and compensatory damages to compensate you for any out-of-pocket costs. 

If you were illegally terminated, a court can also order your employer to rehire you. Contact an employment lawyer to learn more about the penalties for religious discrimination.

How does Title VII define religion?

Under Title VII, religion includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief.” In addition to organized religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the law also covers religious beliefs that are not part of a formal church.

The law also protects employees from religious discrimination for not practicing religion. For example, the law protects atheists from religious discrimination.

Are there exceptions to religious discrimination laws?

Yes, there are exceptions to religious discrimination laws. Title VII does not apply to religious organizations and religious educational institutions.

For example, a church can offer preferential treatment to members of their religion during hiring. However, this exception only applies to institutions with a primarily religious purpose and character. 

The exception does not allow religious organizations to discriminate against applicants or employees because of their race, sex, age, or other protected characteristic, even if the church claims it is part of their religious belief.

What is religious harassment?

Religious harassment means mistreating a person because of their religion. This can include offensive remarks about religious beliefs or practices. A supervisor, co-worker, or even a client or customer can commit religious harassment in the workplace. 

If religious harassment creates a hostile work environment, it violates the law. 

What constitutes religious harassment?

Religious harassment can include offensive remarks about religion, jokes that target a religious practice, or derogatory images that target a religion. Slurs against religious groups also constitute religious harassment.

Religious harassment can create a hostile work environment. The standards for a hostile work environment vary by state, so contact an employment lawyer to learn if workplace religious harassment rises to the level of a hostile work environment.

What is a reasonable religious accommodation?

Under Title VII, your employer must reasonably accommodate your religious beliefs or practices.

The only exception is when an accommodation would cause more than a minimal burden on the business. For example, an employer can change the work schedule to accommodate employees celebrating religious holidays.

Courts can determine whether an employer violates the reasonable accommodation provision.

What are examples of religious discrimination?

Religious discrimination in the workplace can take several forms.

Refusing to hire someone because of their religion is one example of religious discrimination. Firing someone for their religious beliefs also qualifies as religious discrimination.

Employers also cannot refuse to promote someone because of their religious practices. 

For more examples of religious discrimination, visit our guide to religious discrimination in the workplace

Does Title VII prohibit retaliation?

Yes, Title VII protects employees from retaliation. Employers cannot punish a job applicant or employee for complaining about religious discrimination or for requesting an accommodation for religious practice.

Employers also cannot fire or demote someone for acting as a witness in a religious discrimination investigation or case.

What are the religious discrimination protections in New York?

In New York, employers cannot discriminate against employees because of their religion. Under the New York State Human Rights Law, employers cannot refuse to hire a job candidate or fire an employee because of their religion.

These religious discrimination laws also ban discriminatory harassment and discrimination based on religious attire.

Do New York’s religious discrimination laws cover religious harassment?

Yes. In New York City, discriminatory harassment violates the City Human Rights Law. It is illegal to harass someone because of their religion.

The New York religious discrimination laws prohibit any threatening or coercive harassment. State law also protects employees from religious harassment.

Do New York religious discrimination laws cover religious attire?

Yes. In New York, the State Human Rights Law bans employment discrimination based on religious attire, clothing, or facial hair.

This provision went into effect on October 8, 2019. Under this law, New York employers cannot refuse to hire, fire, or discriminate against anyone for wearing attire or facial hair based on their religious beliefs. 

In New York, can employers force you to work on a holy day?

Under New York state law, employers must let workers observe holy days. This includes allowing employees to schedule time off on Saturday to observe Sabbath or to observe other religious holidays.

Employers can require workers to make up missed time or use paid leave to take a holiday. The law also includes an exception if allowing time off would cause an “undue hardship.”

What can you do about religious discrimination?

You have legal rights if you experience religious discrimination in the workplace. Federal, state, and local laws protect employees from religious discrimination. You can contact an employment lawyer to learn more about filing a claim. 

If you’re in the New York City area, contact employment lawyer Charles Joseph for a free consultation. You may have a religious discrimination claim against your employer.

Read more about discrimination protections, how to file a claim, and potential damages.

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Legal content fact checked by Charles E. Joseph

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