Dealing with Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

I’m Experiencing Religious Discrimination at Work: What Do I Do?

A woman praying against a wall

Religious discrimination can be scary when it happens at work because it has a way of making you feel very suddenly that you are not good enough or are not accepted or welcome. It can also create massive stress and hardship if you think the problem might threaten your ability to earn a living and pay your bills.

Throughout history, this kind of discrimination has been very common. Even in the United States, where this is forbidden by the Constitution, religious discrimination has always been widespread.

In 1964, Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act. Title VII of this law provides protections against religious discrimination at work. In the decades since then, as our society has become more secular, companies and the courts have become less tolerant of discrimination against employees.

So if it happens to you at your job, what should you do? The first step is to understand more about what “religious discrimination” actually is, and when it is illegal.

Examples of Illegal Discrimination

Here are some of the most common forms of unlawful religious discrimination at work:

  • You were passed over for being hired or promoted because of your religion, or you were fired, demoted, transferred to a dead-end career track, or forced to take a pay cut because of your religion.
  • You are being/were harassed at your workplace because of your religion. (This is a very broad category, as religious harassment can take many forms, some of which are illegal and some which are not.)
  • You are/were not reasonably accommodated in your religious observances or dress (with some exceptions).
  • You get paid/ were paid less than coworkers with comparable skills, experience, and seniority because of your religion.
  • You are/were singled out and treated differently at work because of your religion.

These are just a few examples. There are many more. On the other hand, religious discrimination at work isn’t always illegal. There are many situations where the law or the courts favor the rights of employers over those of employees. The nonprofit website Workplace Fairness has an excellent page on religious discrimination that explains federal law in many specific scenarios.

It’s Never Too Early for a Legal Consultation

One thing about the law is that it is not intuitive. It’s often not what you expect it to be, and it doesn’t always line up with common sense or practicality. This includes the laws on religious discrimination.

This means you shouldn’t trust your gut to tell you about the law. Instead, you should speak with an experienced workplace attorney whenever you have urgent legal questions or feel that you, or others at your workplace, have been subjected to unlawful discrimination.

Here at Shegerian & Associates, all of our consultations are free, so if you have a question about your specific situation and would like to discuss your legal options, don’t hesitate to contact us. You can get your questions about religious discrimination answered much more quickly and accurately after just a few minutes on the phone with us than you can by reading articles on the web that aren’t able to address your particular circumstances.

What If I’m Not Religious but My Employer Is (Or Vice Versa)?

One source of confusion for many people is where nonreligious people fit into the laws against religious discrimination. In fact, as far as these laws are concerned, nonreligious people with closely held ethical beliefs are considered to have the same legal standing as a religious group. So, for example, an atheist or a humanist will enjoy the same legal protections that a Christian or a Buddhist enjoys.

The reverse scenario, where you’re religious and your employer or supervisor is not, also provides you with the same protections against discrimination. Your employer must (within reason) accommodate you in the observance of your religious obligations, which can include:

  • Taking religious holidays off, if this can be done without causing hardship to the company.
  • Wearing religious clothing or symbols, or refusing to wear certain styles of clothing that violate your beliefs, if this can be done without interfering with safety or efficiency.
  • Expressing your religious beliefs at work, such as praying during breaks, or wishing others a religious sentiment such as “God bless you.”

Religious Discrimination Involving Non-Christian Religions

Christianity is by far the largest religion in America, with about 75% of adults identifying as Christian. With such a large majority, it is inevitable that Christian morals and standards are unconsciously (or sometimes consciously) applied to the workplace. Many non-Christians can attest to their experiences of being isolated and mistreated, both at work and in their community, simply because they don’t belong to the majority religion.

The good news, however, is that federal and state anti-discrimination laws are neutral with respect to which specific religions are involved. Unlawful religious discrimination by anyone of any religion is still unlawful.

What many of our clients quickly realize after talking to us is that, even if their work environment is discriminatory against them, the legal system is much fairer. Most judges attempt to maintain professional impartiality and will interpret the law identically regardless of the religion in question. And if a judge fails to do this, a case can usually be appealed to a higher court, where the judges have even greater professional conduct and experience.

So, if you’re in a situation of religious discrimination, you definitely have the same legal rights as anyone else of any other religion—and they have the same rights as you.

So, What Do I Do?

If you think you may have been the victim of unlawful religious discrimination at work, there are some steps you should take that will help to either resolve the situation outright or make your case stronger when you eventually bring it:

  • Raise the issue with your supervisor. If necessary, go higher up the chain, or speak to human resources. Whatever specific act of religious discrimination it is that made you feel uncomfortable or discriminated against, bring this to their attention and explain why it is a problem for you. Be completely honest and forthcoming. Do not hide information from them.
  • If the issue is not swiftly resolved, make a formal internal complaint within the company. It is also a good idea to consult with an attorney at this point if you have not done so already. By making a formal complaint, you are giving your employer a fair chance to make things right, and you are also creating a paper trail if you do eventually escalate the matter outside the company.
  • If the issue is still not resolved, the next step is to take your claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the relevant state agency. At this point, you should definitely retain legal counsel, as this can be a difficult process with unseen pitfalls that can ruin your chances of getting the matter resolved. The EEOC will investigate the situation and may end up agreeing with you that unlawful religious discrimination occurred; in these cases, your employer will be legally compelled to fix the problem.
  • If the EEOC doesn’t intervene, it will issue you a notice giving you the right to file a lawsuit in court.

What Do I Get If I Win?

If the EEOC or a court agrees with you, you may be entitled to compensation as a way of “making things right.” Compensation may include:

  • A pay increase
  • Back pay
  • Reinstatement or promotion
  • Compensatory damages
  • Punitive damages
  • Attorneys’ fees (making your employer pay for your legal expenses)
  • The dignity of vindication by the legal system and acknowledgment of your suffering

Contact Shegerian & Associates to Begin the Conversation

If you’re suffering (or have recently suffered) religious discrimination at work, Shegerian & Associates can help you figure out your situation and decide on the best legal options. There’s no risk to you: We have a contingency payment model that means you don’t pay us anything unless we win a cash verdict or settlement for you.

We have a 98 percent win rate, and we fight for our clients no matter how big their employer is. We are licensed to serve clients throughout California and in New York City. Check out our religious discrimination page for more information, or contact us today for a free consultation.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.