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Workplace discrimination and religion

| Jan 17, 2019 | Employment Law |

A person’s religious beliefs can be a part of their identity. For some in Tennessee, their religious practices are of paramount importance. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people working in the private sector from discrimination in the workplace based on religion. The courts have determined that there are numerous types of discrimination that are illegal. Specifically, these include fostering a hostile work environment, disparate impact discrimination and disparate treatment discrimination.

Disparate treatment discrimination may be what most people initially think of when they think of workplace discrimination. It is overt discrimination where a worker is treated unequally compared to other workers due to his or her religion. For example, if an employer only hires and promotes persons of a certain religion, this may be considered disparate treatment.

Disparate impact discrimination is not always as obvious. Under this form of discrimination, the employer does not have any sort of express policy against persons of a certain religion or certain religious practices. However, the employer still discriminates in a way that only affects persons of a particular religion. For example, a workplace policy that does not allow men to wear anything on their head in the workplace may discriminate against those whose religion requires them to keep their head covered.

Finally, there is discrimination that fosters a hostile work environment. For example, if an employer allows other employees to harass a worker due to that worker’s religion in a matter that is abusive or intimidating, and the harassment is severe or pervasive, this may constitute discrimination through the creation of a hostile workplace.

Employers have a duty not just to not discriminate, but also to accommodate their workers’ religious beliefs in ways that do not create an undue burden on the part of the employer. For example, allowing a worker to switch shifts with another worker so they can practice their religion may be a reasonable accommodation. It is recognized, though, that certain requests or requirements are not reasonable based on the specific job or employer at issue.

It is important for employers to respect the rights of employees to practice their religion of choice. Unfortunately, situations do come up where an employer commits disparate treatment, disparate impact or a hostile work environment. When that happens, workers who have been discriminated against should take the steps necessary to address the situation and protect their rights.