Basic R.E.S.P.E.C.T.: Effective Tools for Preventing Religious Discrimination At Work

Lisa Lamm Bachman

By Lisa Lamm Bachman

Reaction to events of religious-based attacks throughout the world should motivate employers to revamp efforts to foster respect and tolerance in the workplace in order to prevent claims of religious discrimination. With the continued growth of a diverse workforce, employers could benefit from providing updated training to managers and supervisors so that they are prepared to not only recognize and prevent religious discrimination, but to also effectively respond to employee requests for a religious accommodation. In previous years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued Section 12 of the Compliance Manual which focuses on religious discrimination. This is a useful resource for employers to understand what constitutes religious discrimination and the steps that should be taken to manage potential conflicts resulting from the continued increase of religious diversity in the workplace. In conjunction with the updated enforcement guidance, the EEOC also issued a question and answer publication which employers may reference as an additional tool in their efforts to recognize and prevent religious discrimination claims.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers of 15 or more employees from discriminating in employment based on religion. Specific prohibited conduct includes making employment-related decisions based upon an individual’s religious beliefs, subjecting an employee to harassment based upon their religious beliefs or association with a religious group, failure to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, or retaliating against a job applicant or employee who engaged in protected activity such as filing a charge of religious discrimination or submitting a complaint to human resources concerning religious discrimination. Religion is broadly defined as all aspects of religious practice and observance whether traditional or untraditional. The key to determining whether the belief or practice is religious depends upon whether it holds sincere meaning to the individual. In other words, religious beliefs are more typically concerned with ideas about life and purpose as opposed to political philosophies or personal preferences. Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee, whose sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance conflicts with a work requirement unless provision of the accommodation would create an undue hardship. In cases where the religious practice or belief is questionable, an employer may inquire of the employee to provide additional information regarding the religious belief and how it relates to a particular accommodation request.

If our company tolerates different religious beliefs and practices doesn’t this increase the risk of another employee being uncomfortable with exposure to a particular religious belief or practice?

Employers are expected to create an environment of tolerance and respect in the workplace. This can be established by adopting a well-publicized anti-harassment policy that specifically includes religious harassment and outlines what conduct is strictly prohibited. The policy should contain set standards for bringing an internal complaint of religious harassment to the attention of a supervisor and reassurance that the complainant will be protected from retaliation. Standards should include alternative avenues for raising a complaint, as well as a set response and investigation schedule to allow for immediate corrective action. Modeling religious tolerance toward all employees sets a standard of civility in the workplace. By taking proactive steps, employers will encourage an atmosphere that allows for resolving religious conflict at work before it worsens. Frequent and comprehensive training of supervisors, managers and staff will also solidify employer policies and expectations regarding varying religious beliefs.

Our company employs a number of individuals holding very different religious beliefs, is it religious harassment if employees openly discuss their different religious viewpoints?

Religious harassment occurs when an employee is required or coerced to abandon, alter or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment or is subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct based upon their religious beliefs or practices that are severe and pervasive and cause the employee to feel that the work environment is hostile. A mutual discussion among employees concerning different religious beliefs would likely not constitute a form of religious harassment. However, if the initial conversation leads to further intense discussion of religious beliefs, particularly aft er one of the employees indicates no further interest in the discussion, additional attempts by the proselytizing employee to continue non-work-related conversations of a religious nature would be considered unwelcome and may constitute a form of religious harassment.

What steps does an employer need to take to accommodate an employee’s religious belief or practice?

Once an employer receives an employee request to accommodate a religious belief or practice, the employer should take steps to determine whether the accommodation request is reasonable and feasible. If there is doubt concerning the requested accommodation, the employer should engage in a respectful discussion with the employee to determine whether alternative accommodations are available. This dialogue can include a request for the employee to provide additional information about a religious observance, such as the time and duration of daily prayer breaks, avoiding work on a particular day of the week due to a religious observance, or the need to wear a particular item of clothing as a part of the employee’s religious practice. An employee is expected to provide the additional requested information to assist in facilitating a reasonable accommodation. The employer need not provide the specific requested accommodation if it can be demonstrated that an alternative solution meets the employee’s religious needs. Finally, the employer need not provide any religious accommodation if it can demonstrate an undue hardship, which is defined as more than a de minimis cost on the operation of the employer’s business. Undue hardship can be established by not only direct monetary costs, but it may also include a diminished efficiency in other job performances, an impairment of workplace safety or infringement on co-workers’ job rights or benefits.


Lisa Lamm Bachman, a partner at Foley & Mansfield, focuses her practice in employment law and litigation. In her more than 20 years of practice, Lisa has tried numerous cases before both bench and jury, and has handled more than a dozen appellate proceedings. She can be reached by email at lbachman@foleymansfield.com.