FAQ: Preventing Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
What is "religion" under Title VII?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief and defines religion very broadly for purposes of determining what the law covers. For purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. An employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it. Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.
Religious beliefs include theistic beliefs (i.e. those that include a belief in God) as well as non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Although courts generally resolve doubts about particular beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious, beliefs are not protected merely because they are strongly held. Rather, religion typically concerns “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.” Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not “religious” beliefs protected by Title VII.
Religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities. Whether a practice is religious depends on the employee’s motivation. The same practice might be engaged in by one person for religious reasons and by another person for purely secular reasons (e.g., dietary restrictions, tattoos, etc.).
Is CBP required to provide reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs or practices?
Yes. It is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fail to provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious beliefs and/or practices of employees and applicants for employment unless providing a reasonable accommodation would result in undue hardship to CBP. Undue hardship means more than de minimis cost or burden on the operation of CBP. Note that this is a lower standard to meet than undue hardship under the Rehabilitation Act, which is defined in that statute as "significant difficulty or expense."
What is the scope of the Title VII prohibition on disparate treatment based on religion?
Title VII’s prohibition against disparate (different) treatment based on religion generally functions like its prohibition against disparate treatment based on race, color, sex, or national origin. Disparate treatment violates the statute whether the difference is motivated by bias against or preference toward an applicant or employee due to his religious beliefs, practices, or observances – or lack thereof. For example, except to the extent permitted by the religious organization or ministerial exceptions:
- Employers may not refuse to recruit, hire, or promote individuals of a certain religion, impose stricter promotion requirements for persons of a certain religion, or impose more or different work requirements on an employee because of that employee’s religious beliefs or practices.
- Employers may not refuse to hire an applicant simply because he does not share the employer’s religious beliefs, and conversely may not select one applicant over another based on a preference for employees of a particular religion.
- Employment agencies may not comply with requests from employers to engage in discriminatory recruitment or referral practices, for example by screening out applicants who have names often associated with a particular religion (e.g., Mohammed).
- Employers may not exclude an applicant from hire merely because he or she may need a reasonable accommodation that could be provided absent undue hardship.
The prohibition against disparate treatment based on religion also applies to disparate treatment of religious expression in the workplace.For example, if an employer allowed one secretary to display a Bible on her desk at work while telling another secretary in the same workplace to put the Quran on his desk out of view because co-workers “will think you are making a political statement, and with everything going on in the world right now we don’t need that around here,” this would be differential treatment in violation of Title VII.
What constitutes religious harassment under Title VII?
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.
When is CBP liable for religious harassment?
CBP is always liable for a supervisor’s harassment if it results in a tangible employment action. However, if it does not, the agency may be able to avoid liability or limit damages by showing that: (a) the agency exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior, and (b) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise. The agency is liable for harassment by co-workers where it knew or should have known about the harassment, and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action. The agency is liable for harassment by non-employees where it knew or should have known about the harassment, could control the harasser’s conduct or otherwise protect the employee, and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.
Do national origin, race, color, and religious discrimination intersect in some cases?
Yes. Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination may overlap with Title VII’s prohibitions against discrimination based on national origin, race, and color. Where a given religion is strongly associated – or perceived to be associated – with a certain national origin, the same facts may state a claim of both religious and national origin discrimination. All four bases might be implicated where, for example, co-workers target a dark-skinned Muslim employee from Saudi Arabia for harassment because of his religion, national origin, race, and/or color.
Does Title VII prohibit retaliation?
Yes. Title VII prohibits retaliation by an employer, employment agency, or labor organization because an individual has engaged in protected activity. Protected activity consists of opposing a practice the employee reasonably believes is made unlawful by one of the employment discrimination statutes or of filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the statute. Requesting religious accommodation is protected activity.
What should an applicant or employee do if they believe they have experienced religious discrimination?
You may initiate an informal EEO complaint by sending an email to: email@example.com, with a brief statement on why you believe that you have been subjected to unlawful discrimination. Your email should also include your telephone number and address.
You may also initiate an informal EEO complaint by calling (1-877) MY-EEO-HELP (1-877-693-3643), or by contacting your servicing DCR Officer.
To preserve the right to file a formal EEO complaint, individuals who believe they have been subjected to unlawful discrimination must seek informal EEO counseling within 45 calendar days of the alleged discriminatory act. The allegation will be assigned to a PDO staff member to conduct informal EEO counseling. At the initial interview, the EEO counselor will explain the EEO complaint process and the option to participate in mediation.