Religious Discrimination Definition
Religious discrimination in the workplace and otherwise related to work is sometimes referred to as religion discrimination. Both terms mean unlawful prejudice against employees solely because of their religious beliefs or practices, or their associations with religious individuals, groups or organizations.
Religious discrimination also means unlawful prejudice against employees solely because they have no faith in any religion. Such prejudice is sometimes referred to as reverse religious discrimination; regardless, it's still on the basis of religion like the form defined above.
The term reverse discrimination originated on the basis of race.
In religious discrimination cases that test the meaning of religion, such as when employees sue their employers for not accommodating their nontraditional religious beliefs, the courts define the term by interpreting the relevant laws and precedents on a case-by-case basis.
What the courts typically deem to be a bona fide religion not only includes belief in one of the traditional organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism, but also includes sincere religious, moral or ethical beliefs that are ultimately about life, purpose and death, even if not widely held or based on theology.
Social, political or economic philosophies, secular beliefs, or mere personal preferences are not likely to constitute a religion in discrimination cases, no matter how sincere; for example, a sincere belief in body art (tattoos or piercings) solely as self-expression is not likely to constitute a religion by legal definition. Sincerity alone does not constitute a religion under the relevant laws.
Religious Discrimination Laws
Federal "religious discrimination law" falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a landmark anti-discrimination law that prohibits several types of employment discrimination in all states, including that based on religion.
Generally, employers with 15 or more employees are covered by Title VII of the Act, meaning that those employers must abide by the Federal religious discrimination law within or risk suffering the legal consequences. (Employment agencies and labor unions are also covered by the religious discrimination law, but religious institutions are sometimes not under a doctrine called the "ministerial exception.")
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Federal religious discrimination law and related regulations, which make it illegal for covered employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion in any of the terms and conditions of employment, including hiring, termination and pay.
As part of prohibiting discrimination, Federal religious discrimination law requires covered employers to reasonably accommodate the religious dress, practices, observances and prohibitions of employees, unless it causes undue hardship on the employers or their remaining employees.
Examples of such accommodations include policy allowances for the wearing of religious garments, praying and attending worship services. However, the law allows employers to fairly question employees about their need for accommodation and offer reasonable alternatives that comply with the employers' traditional policies.
Update: On June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers covered by Title VII cannot discriminate for religious reasons, even if job applicants and employees do not specifically request accommodations.
To be fair under the principle of religious freedom in America, which includes the choice to believe in a religion or not, Federal religious discrimination law also prohibits reverse religious discrimination as defined above. The law protects employees who do not believe in any religion (or deity), such as agnostics and atheists, as well as those who do.
It was the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that established freedom of religion in America, through the legal concept of separation of church and state put forth by Thomas Jefferson. In 1802, Jefferson wrote a letter in which he included the phrase "wall of separation between Church & State" in reference to the First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom by stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".
States are permitted to enact their own religious discrimination laws that provide better employee protections than does Title VII, but not lesser protections. State EEOC equivalents enforce such laws in states that have them. In states that don't have them, Title VII rules.
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