Balancing Religion with Work: Your Legal Rights

Religion doesn’t have to be a source of contention at work. According to federal law, a worker whose religion requires activity during work hours has rights that are protected and must be accommodated.

Also, those who decide to express religious beliefs at work may do so without harassment from management and co-workers, according to law. This is because federal law protects workers from unfair discrimination based on religious practice and beliefs.

However, it should also be noted that religion at work can’t go overboard. Federal laws also make it clear that any requests for religious accommodations must be reasonable and not unduly burdensome to a business or company.

That said, it may be unclear for some employees where to draw the line. That’s why the following tips and suggestions for balancing work and religion take into account the rights of employees as well as the dictates of the law, which specify just how far an employer must go to assist with religious practices at work.

Religion + work: Case scenarios

Perhaps the best way to illustrate getting to an even balance of religion and work is to take a look at cases in which this particular issue is raised. Indeed, as religious diversity increases across the nation, situations are arising with striking regularity where religious beliefs and practices become a source of frustration and sometimes a source of liability.

One recurring theme involves employers who fail to allow time off for religious observances. Federal law, the 1964 Civil Rights Act to be exact, does require time off when requested as long as the request is reasonable and won’t incur undue harm for the business.

For instance, if the request for time off means covering a substantial cost for training someone else or being forced to pay overtime costs or premium fees to cover the loss, an employer may not be required to accommodate the time off for religious practice.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing employment discrimination laws in companies with 15 or more employees,  sued a Dunkin Donuts franchise in 2014 for similar reasons. A Seventh Day Adventist employee informed his employer, after being offered a position as donut maker, that he could not work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. After this revelation, the employer retracted the offer.

The EEOC’s stance was that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits such discrimination based on religion in the employment process and the request for time off should not have led to the denial of employment.

Another recurring theme in religious discrimination cases deals with the use of religious dress, clothing or paraphernalia at work. For some religious workers, the practice of a particular belief may involve wearing a certain headscarf, not shaving or cutting beards or hair or wearing certain items on specific days. The law does not require an employer to accommodate every request concerning what workers wear in relation to religious beliefs. Again, if the request is unreasonably burdensome to the employer, the request may be denied. However, courts have found that a number of request denials in this area have been illegal.

One such type of case involves the Muslim scarf. In fact, the number of Muslims facing discrimination in the workplace, whether due to cultural stereotypes and biases or religious beliefs concerning the headscarf, has been on the rise.

However, Islam, like other religions in the U.S., is protected as a religious practice from discriminatory behavior from an employer. Not only that, but harassment and retaliation for complaining about religious discrimination against Muslim workers is also illegal.

Case in point is a Supreme Court case involving a Muslim woman who was denied a position at an Oklahoma Abercrombie and Fitch. The Supreme Court recently heard the first arguments of the case and seemed inclined to agree that the refusal to hire because the woman’s headscarf did not fall within the company’s “look” policy and because the woman did not state she wore the scarf for religious reasons was a violation of federal law.

In a similar case, the EEOC charged a company with religious discrimination for taking adverse action against a Rastafarian man who refused to cut his hair for religious reasons. Religious grooming, like religious dress is protected to an extent by Title VII. Such cases reflect that an employer’s refusal to hire or promote or a decision to terminate employment due to religion or even a seriously held religious belief, could lead to legal action.

Complex issues in religious discrimination

What happens when a worker’s religious belief are considered controversial or distracting for other co-workers? Does a religious employer have the right to refuse to hire gay or lesbian employees based on his or her religious stance?

These scenarios present situations where the balance between religion and employment can get extremely complex. Yet, the law is clear that religion is a protected worker characteristic under federal law. At times, this could mean accommodating religious beliefs that an employer may or may not agree with or that is disagreeable to co-workers.

For religious employers at churches and similar places of worship, employers are entitled to some leeway in the hiring process. In particular, members of the clergy are not obligated to hire applicants outside of their religion or whose lifestyles do not comply with the beliefs of the organization.

For all others, however, the courts seem to say that unless the hardship of accommodating a religious practice or seriously held belief is undue, employers and co-workers alike may just have to endure it.

It’s important to know your rights

Whether you’re an employer whose religion requires practicing in some way while at work or you’re an employee dealing with religion at work, it’s important to know which federal, state and local lies apply and what your rights are. Take the time to peruse your resources and ensure that your workplace remains respectful and fair when it comes to religion on the job.