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Religious Discrimination in the Work Environment

Author: Rick Wood
Posted: September 11th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,355

There have always been issues with discrimination in the workplace for many reasons. In this essay, I am going to focus on some of the key issues of religious discrimination in the work environment from the viewpoint of an employer. I will also discuss the employee’s rights. These rights are something that an employer and their supervisors should be made aware of to avoid crossing the line and possibly infringing upon anyone's religious rights.

In movies, news reports, and by way of just plain old ignorance, it is easy to profile someone based on their clothing, jewelry, or even their accent. This is something we all do. It is impossible to keep your mind from wandering to such things, but it is possible to control your behavior. Having good self-control and reasoning is what makes a discrimination-free workplace possible.

Personally, I feel that there is plenty of information already generated on the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhism, and Islamic sects. It is time for people to take a look around and see that there are more than four or five religions in this world, and they all deserve the same amount of respect as the more popular and well-publicized religions. One religious group in particular is rarely talked about in the workplace, and sometimes even considered taboo.

The religious group I would like to bring focus to is known as Paganism. When someone is actually bold enough to stand out and say he/she is pagan, he/she normally hears the "devil worshiper" or "making sacrifices" remarks from under people's breath. [In fact, people are so ignorant and so unwilling to accept something different, a young girl was thrown out of school for wearing a pentagram. A pentagram is the symbol of a star with a circle around it, the five points represent all of the things necessary to be human (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Spirit) and the connecting circle represents that. As long as these five items are present and unbroken, there is life. The girl’s family had to receive help from a lawyer to be able to wear her religious symbol to school. This symbol is as important to a pagan as the cross is to a Christian, the Star of David to the Jews, etc.]

According to a survey conducted at a number of universities, Paganism is currently the fastest growing religion in the modern world. It has always been the largest practiced religion among Native tribes on almost every continent. People have chosen to worship Gods, Goddesses, Demigods, and celestial bodies for many thousands of generations before the cult of Christianity rose to be one of the top five religions in the world.

As an employer, if you allow a Christian to wear a cross pendant, necklace, or ring, then you must also equally allow other religious employees to wear their own religious symbols.

When making your company policies, think long and hard about restrictions and favoritism in the workplace. If you allow a Christian to wear a WWJD shirt to work, you will also have to allow a Jewish man to wear his Kippa or Yarmulke, and a Muslim to wear their Tagiyah cap, and so on.

Lets discuss time off. Are you going to allow for religious holidays? How many will you allow, and will everyone have an equal amount of time off by the end of the year? Almost everyone gives their employees off for Christmas and Sundays off for keeping the Sabbath, but most Pagans celebrate the beginning and midpoint of each season change called Sabbats (the original Sabbath days) . Will you accommodate these days as well?

As an employer, you have no legal right to ask employees about their religious status, therefore you must already have a policy in place to accommodate all expressions of belief or allow none. It is lawful however to state the hours and days that the applicant will be working and have him/her sign that those hours and days will be fine and accommodating.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any employer with 15 employees or more (this includes employment agencies and Unions) cannot discriminate against anyone because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. You are also not allowed to retaliate in any way against an employee whom complains of discrimination. Title VII also prohibits:

1. Treating an applicant or employee differently than anyone else based on religious beliefs or practices in any aspect of this meaning.

2. You cannot subject employees to harassment because of their beliefs or practices. This means that you need to make everyone aware that bringing in pamphlets and leaving them on someone's desk or the bulletin board is not allowed. Continually asking someone to visit a church or gathering after they have made clear they don't want to, also constitute discrimination. If you really sit down and read this Act, it is best for everyone involved to leave company discussions of religion out of the workplace.

3. You cannot deny a reasonable request for accommodation of someone's sincerely held religious beliefs or practices as long as it doesn't make the operation lose money or creates a burden. That sounds like a loophole, but it actually just gives you enough rope to hang yourself.

Swapping hours or days with another employee can accommodate most religious requests, and civil rights lawyers will happily make that point. The actual wording of this act states it is ‘reasonable’ unless it would pose an undue hardship (would cause more than de minimis cost on the operation of the employers business.) As we know, the Latin term "De Minimis" means a loss of something, but not necessarily monetary. A number of court cases upheld that the employers experienced undue hardship because the request diminished efficiency in other jobs, infringed upon other co-workers rights, benefits, created burdensome work, or even impaired workplace safety. The assumption that other people with the same religion may also seek accommodation is not an undue hardship.

If you as the employer have a dress or grooming code that may conflict with the religious practices and or beliefs, if employees ask for an accommodation or exception to that policy, again you must prove that it would cause undue hardship or a violation of the safety standards of their jobs if your company moves to deny the request.

In 1989, Margot Adler, reported in her book Drawing Down the Moon on a survey that noted that Pagans have an unfulfilled desire to read and learn compared to persons of other beliefs. It also showed that many Pagans have jobs in the computer and health care fields. With that information, it was deduced that a Pagan employee is most likely to be competent with computers and highly efficient in any helping professions.

Now we need to look at some of the rights of an employer. According to the "Employment at Will Act" as an employer you are allowed to hire, fire promote, or demote anyone at anytime for any reason. You do not even have to give the employee a reason unless you made a written contract with them upon hiring. BUT, there are four exceptions to this:

1. You cannot fire for any reason protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. (Race, color, gender, religion, etc.) .

2. You cannot fire someone for reporting your business to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health) ,

3. Or for organizing a Union that is under the protection of the National Fair Labor Practice Act,

4. And lastly for having any type of disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some people may or will ask for holidays you, as an employer are not accustomed to, such as Yule, Samhain (pronounced Saw-win) , etc. As a good employer, you should have a calendar with these holidays marked on it and be prepared to accommodate your Pagan employees with their holidays. As a rule, employees who feel that their rights and religions are being taken into consideration are happier with their jobs. Naturally a happy employee is a more productive employee. If you as the employer are willing to allow an employee to have December 21st (Yule) off from work, you will have the employee's respect. Any company can hire workers, but to have an employee who respects you, your business and who loves his/her job is not something you can get with any amount of money.

The bottom line is you must make the decision to have religion taken into consideration when you make company rules and regulations or you will have a long hard battle with unhappy employees. It sounds like an easy choice to make, but since every religion and every person is different, you may need to make adjustments as the situations arise.

Make certain to provide training for all supervisors and have them know the company’s policies on the subject of religion. There have been many cases in the past where a supervisor discriminates against another employee although it goes strictly against company policies. And all employees, no matter their position, should know exactly where the company stands on policies based upon religion and religious practice.

1. "U.S. State constitutions and web sites, " at:
3. Larry Boemler "Asherah and Easter, " Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 18, Number 3, 1992-May/June
4. "Religious liberty: The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, " People for the American Way
6. Daniel Kurtzman, "Bills calls for religious freedom in workplace, " Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
7. Julia Spoor, "Note, Go tell it on the mountain, but keep it out of the office: Religious harassment in the workplace, " 31 Val. U. L. Rev. 971, Valparaiso University Law Review (1997-Summer)
8. "Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace, "
9. W.F. Goodling, "Protection of religious freedom in the workplace, " Remarks on the introduction of HR 2948 on 1998-JAN-27. Search:
10. Kerry, "Workplace Religious Freedom Act, " Remarks on the introduction of the bill to the Senate on 1997-JUL-31. Search:
11. "Bill would boost protections for worker's faith practices, " The Report from the Capital, Baptist Joint Committee, Vol. 54, No. 20, 1999-OCT-12.
12. Dallas Morning News September 12, 2002 (page 27A)


Rick Wood

Location: Somerville, Alabama

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