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Common Workplace Religious Discrimination Disputes

Common Workplace Religious Discrimination Disputes

The 1964 Civil Rights Act clearly prohibits religious discrimination in employment situations. Contrary to the popular myth, the religion at issue need not be an organized or recognized faith. As long as the employee’s religious beliefs are sincere, they are protected. 

In other words, religious discrimination prohibition is much broader than people think. As a rule of thumb, if the exercise of your religion in the workplace has made you feel uncomfortable or resulted in any adverse action, even indirectly, a Chicago religious discrimination lawyer should probably review your case.

Harassment

All employees have the right to a harassment-free workplace. The precise definition of harassment, especially in the religious discrimination context, is a bit murky.

In general, religious harassment cannot be so intense that it constitutes a hostile environment. An environment is hostile if physical, verbal, or other harassment prevents workers from doing their jobs. Let’s return to the Christian head-covering example. If a woman wears a scarf to work every day and other employees point and whisper at her, that conduct probably constitutes a hostile environment, especially if it happens more than two or three times.

On a side note, employers are not just responsible for the conduct of their employees. If a customer or another third party harasses a worker, the employer knows about it, and the employer does not remedy the situation, the employer is legally responsible. 

Segregation

Many faiths require or encourage adherents to look different from other people. These scruples sometimes cause problems in the workplace. Employers might reassign these people to non-customer-facing positions, or refuse to hire them altogether.

That was the situation in 2015’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, a case which was similar to our Christian head-covering example. An Oklahoma Abercrombie & Fitch store refused to hire Samantha Elauf because she wore a hijab, a Muslim head covering. Store management feared that such attire would have an adverse effect on customers.

The Supreme Court sided with Elauf in that case. So, if something similar happens to you, your rights are quite clear.

Reasonable Accommodation

Schedule changes are the most common example of reasonable accommodation. Most faiths have holy days. Employers must respect these holy days, even if the employee’s religion only has one adherent. Dietary issues are a close second. If employers offer communal meals, they must take care to avoid servicing food which some people cannot consume for religious reasons. 

Ad hoc solutions do not cut it. For example, with regard to scheduling issues, it is not enough for an employer to allow a worker to switch with someone else. The employer, and not the employee, has a duty to make an accommodation.

That being said, employees normally have a duty to discuss these issues with employers. After all, many employers do not know that certain days are holy or certain foods are un-kosher unless someone tells them so.

Grooming and Dressing Policies

Part of the aforementioned set-apartness often includes physical appearance. For example, some faiths encourage or require male adherents to wear beards. A no-beard policy, unless it is reasonably related to food safety or other issues, is illegal.

Employers often have sincere religious beliefs, as well. It is not illegal to hold such principles, but it is illegal to force other people to bend to them. For example, an employer cannot forbid women from wearing pants or miniskirts.

Contact a Dedicated Lawyer

The religious discrimination ban is much broader in practice than it is in theory. For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago workplace discrimination lawyer, contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Kline. We routinely handle matters in Cook County and nearby jurisdictions. 

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