Religious Discrimination Claims Rise

August 15, 2011

Several months after the 9/11 attacks, Alamo Car Rental fired one of its customer service representatives, a Muslim woman who refused to remove her head scarf during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Phoenix filed a lawsuit claiming that Alamo committed backlash discrimination based on religion. Last year, a jury awarded more than $287,000 to the woman.

In this case, the judge decided that Alamo’s religious discrimination against the woman was so clear cut that those allegations did not even go to the jury; the jury’s only role was to decide how much money the ex-employee was entitled to. “For nearly six years, Alamo has continued to deny that it violated the law when it refused to accommodate Ms. Nur’s religious beliefs and fired her,” said Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC Phoenix District Office in a statement following the jury’s ruling. “Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] protects people of all religious beliefs, and no one should ever have to sacrifice her religious beliefs in order to keep a job.”

Religious discrimination cases such as Nur’s have been on the rise since 9/11. The number of cases that the EEOC, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the laws that prohibit employment discrimination, has received based on religious discrimination has increased from 1,939 in 2000 to 3,790 in 2010.

Of course, not all religious discrimination cases involve Muslims or what the EEOC calls other “vulnerable groups” post-9/11. The increased focus on religion has led to claims by members of other denominations as well. For example, in October 2007, a jury ordered AT&T Inc. to pay $756,000 in a religious discrimination lawsuit the EEOC brought on behalf of two male customer service technicians who were suspended and fired for attending a Jehovah’s Witnesses Convention. And according to the Los Angeles Times, in July the Los Angeles Police Department was sued for religious discrimination after it disciplined an off-duty police sergeant who called homosexual acts “sinful” and an “abomination.”

A Proactive Approach

In order to stave off potential religious discrimination claims by employees of all faiths, employers need to understand their duties under Title VII, and they need to communicate those duties and expectations to their employees.

  • Understand “Reasonable Accommodations”
    Title VII requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs, but only if it doesn’t cause undue hardship. It can be very complicated for organizations to determine what is reasonable, and what represents an undue hardship.
  • Educate Employees about their Responsibilities
    While employers must try to resolve conflicts between religious needs and work-related duties, employees must do the same. They should offer as much notice as possible when they need to take time off for holy days, and they should work their vacation schedules or personal days around these times. Upon hiring or during job training, employers should communicate their expectations to employees; an annual refresher course for all employees, including managers, can help head off conflicts.
  • Consider Religious Clothing When Developing Dress Codes
    Many religions require a particular type of dress or symbols, from tattoos for Coptic Christians to yarmulkes for devout Jewish men to hijabs, or head scarves, for devout Muslim women. Employers must factor these types of religious garb into their formal dress codes and informal expectations for what employees can wear.One of the few relatively clear rules about religious symbols or clothing representing an undue hardship involves safety issues. If a particular type of religious garb could represent a safety risk for that particular employee’s job, the employer generally has the right to dictate what the employee can or cannot wear.
  • Laws Apply to Applicants, Too
    It is illegal to ask job applicants about their religion or observance of religious holidays during any point of the hiring process. Asking if an applicant’s religion will prevent them from working holidays and weekends is not acceptable-rather, the employee must alert the employer about needed days off once he or she is hired. However, employers can describe the hours and duties that a job entails during the interview process.
  • “Joking” Comments
    When someone in the workplace makes comments about a person’s religion, or supposed religion, that can quickly cross the line into religious discrimination, even if they insist it was all in good fun. The company should clearly lay out what the boundaries are for unacceptable personal comments and enforce those as soon as they become aware of the comments or a compliant is filed.

The United States is on track to become more, and not less, religiously diverse. With the proper planning and policies, employers can create an environment where employees of all religions, as well as no religions, feel valued. This also helps the company minimize its exposure to potential religious discrimination lawsuits.