Religious harassment in violation of Title VII occurs when employees are: (1) required or coerced to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment (this type of “quid pro quo” harassment may also give rise to a disparate treatment or denial of accommodation claim in some circumstances); or (2) subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct that is based on religion and is so severe or pervasive that the individual being harassed reasonably finds the work environment to be hostile or abusive, and there is a basis for holding the agency liable.
It is necessary to evaluate all of the surrounding circumstances to determine whether or not particular conduct or remarks are unwelcome. For example, where an employee is upset by repeated mocking use of derogatory terms or comments about his religious beliefs or observance by a colleague, it may be evident that the conduct is unwelcome. In contrast, a consensual conversation about religious views, even if quite spirited, does not constitute harassment if it is not unwelcome.
Even unwelcome religiously motivated conduct is not unlawful unless the victim subjectively perceives the environment to be abusive and the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive. Religious expression that is repeatedly directed at an employee can become severe or pervasive, whether or not the content is intended to be insulting or abusive. Thus, for example, persistently reiterating atheist views to a religious employee who has asked that this conduct stop can create a hostile environment.
The extent to which the expression is directed at a particular employee is relevant to determining whether or when it could reasonably be perceived to be severe or pervasive by that employee. For example, although it is conceivable that an employee may allege that he is offended by a colleague’s wearing of religious garb, expressing one’s religion by wearing religious garb is not religious harassment. It merely expresses an individual’s religious affiliation and does not demean other religious views. As such, it is not objectively hostile. Nor is it directed at any particular individual. Similarly, workplace displays of religious artifacts or posters that do not demean other religious views generally would not constitute religious harassment.