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Religious Discrimination

It’s illegal for an employer, other than a religious institution, to discriminate against any current or potential employee on the basis of that employee’s creed, religious beliefs or practices, or lack thereof (hereafter referred to as “religious beliefs” for brevity).

The federal Civil Rights Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) provide numerous legal protections against discrimination because of your religious beliefs.

The First Amendment’s free exercise clause also protects the rights of public employees (those who work for a government-supported entity, like a police department or school system) to practice their religion, except when their exercise of this right conflicts with a narrow and compelling interest of the state. The First Amendment does not restrict conduct by or related to private employers or service providers.

Laws Protect Religion and Association

State and Federal laws protecting you from discrimination based on religion apply in many situations involving the presence or absence of religion or creed (system of beliefs). These include

  • Belonging to a particular religious faith or attendance at a particular place of worship
  • Being a non-believer
  • Being associated with a person of a particular religion (for example, being married to a Muslim)
  • Being perceived to be of a particular religious faith, even though you are not actually of that faith.

Although the Supreme Court has applied the protections of laws against religious discrimination based on “sincere and meaningful moral and ethical beliefs” that were not religious, this has thus far been limited to “conscientious objector” status to the mandatory military draft. Otherwise, the prohibitions against discrimination based on religion generally do not apply to protect a person’s political or social views, even if strongly and sincerely held. (For example, they would not protect a person’s affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan.) In general, the protections against religious discrimination or guarantees of religious freedoms do not protect you from punishment if you commit a crime or otherwise violate a law, even if your actions are allowed or motivated by your religious beliefs.

Federal & State Laws Protect Against Employment Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers, except religious organizations, from discriminating against individuals because of their religion. This means that an employer covered by this federal statute cannot discriminate against someone because of his or her religious beliefs in hiring, promotions, wages, termination, or layoffs. Non-religious institutions are usually not permitted to include any statements of religious preference in an advertisement for a job (statements like “non-Catholics preferred”).

A limited exception is where religion is a “bona fide occupational qualification” for the job. For instance, it would be reasonable to include a requirement that a candidate for the job of chaplain at a hospital be an ordained minister or religious official.

It is also illegal to retaliate against an employee for complaining about religious discrimination or to segregate an employee into a job based on his or her religion (such as assigning an employee to a non-customer contact position because of actual or perceived customer preference).

Employers may not treat employees more or less favorably because of their religion, and they may neither require nor forbid employees to participate in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

If an employer takes an “adverse employment action” against a worker because of his or her religious beliefs or in retaliation for a complaint about religion or creed, it may be grounds for a lawsuit. According to the EEOC, “an action is an adverse employment action if a reasonable employee would have found the action materially adverse, which means it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” These include

  • Employment actions such as termination, refusal to hire, and denial of promotion,
  • Other actions affecting employment such as threats, unjustified negative evaluations, unjustified negative references, or increased surveillance, and
  • Any other action, such as an assault or unfounded civil or criminal charges, that is likely to deter reasonable people from pursuing their rights.

The NJLAD provides essentially the same protections, extending them to virtually every employee working in New Jersey (other than employees of religious organizations, i.e., institutions whose purpose and character are primarily religious).

Protection from Workplace Harassment Based on Religion

It is unlawful under both the Civil Rights Act and NJLAD for anyone in the workplace, including supervisors, coworkers, and clients, to harass an employee because of his or her religion or creed. In addition to prohibiting harassment due to one’s beliefs, the laws prohibit harassment for religious practices, such as an employee’s wearing of religious garb or accessories, manner of dress or hairstyle, or dietary choices. Other prohibitions on conduct may also be protected expressions of religious beliefs, like not being permitted to work at certain times or on certain days. Harassment is deemed illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment action. If the harassing conduct is intentional, extreme, and outrageous, it may constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Requirement to Make Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace

Employers are required by the Civil Rights Act and the NJLAD to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, so long as doing so would not constitute an undue hardship. It is an employee’s responsibility to request accommodation; the employer’s obligation is to try in good faith to accommodate the employee’s religious needs, although this does not have to be in the specific manner that employee requests. Employers may have to make exceptions to policies to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

Example: A female medical office receptionist is a devout Muslim whose beliefs dictate that she wear a covering on her head when in mixed company. She requests to wear her Hijab (a scarf that covers her head and neck) along with her company-issued uniform. Ordinarily, employees are not permitted to wear head coverings or other non-uniform items, but it is unlikely that allowing it would be an “undue hardship.” Her request should most likely be approved.

However, employers do not have to make an accommodation that would create an “undue hardship.” A requested accommodation causes an “undue hardship” under the law if accommodating it requires “anything more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation.”

Example: The aforementioned employee frequently has to operate medical equipment and enter sterile lab areas. If her requested head covering poses a safety or health risk, her request can legally be denied. However, if she then requests a head covering that meets her religious obligations and is generally accepted by the medical community as meeting safety and cleanliness requirements, she may have a claim against her employer if her subsequent request is denied.

What to Do If You Are the Victim of Religious Discrimination

Victims of religious discrimination in New Jersey can file claims with two primary agencies. At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles discrimination claims, while the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (DCR) handles claims at the state level. In order to bring a claim before the EEOC, the complaint must be related to unlawful discrimination or retaliation covered by federal laws. Claims covered only by state law, on the other hand, must be brought before the DCR. Not all employers are covered by both the federal and state anti-discrimination laws, and the remedies available under each law are different.

If you believe you’ve been the victim of religious discrimination, you should talk to an attorney experienced in federal and New Jersey anti-discrimination laws. An experienced attorney can help you determine whether you may have a claim, and if so, help you decide which venue would be best for you to pursue an action.

To schedule an appointment at the Basking Ridge, Oradell, or Newark, New Jersey, law offices of The Mark Law Firm, contact us today. Our experienced team can help you determine whether you may have a claim for religious discrimination or other employment law violations.