Freedom from Religion in the Workplace

California employees have the right under state and federal law to a workplace free from religious discrimination, hostility and proselytization.

First, both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protect employees from religious discrimination in the workplace. Therefore, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee based on the employee’s religion nor can an employer favor employees sharing the employer’s religious beliefs. In addition to claims under Title VII and FEHA, employees terminated because of their religious beliefs can assert tort claims against their employers for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

Second, employees may have harassment claims based on a hostile work environment if the religions of others are imposed upon them or if they suffer ridicule or criticism based on their own religions (or lack thereof in the case of atheists and agnostics). For instance, employees subject to frequent jokes or insulting remarks about their religion may have actionable harassment claims against their employers.

Finally, employers are obligated to make reasonable accommodations to eliminate conflicts between job requirements and their employees’ religious beliefs, observances and practices (unless the employer cannot do so without undue hardship). Accordingly, employers may be obligated to modify employees’ work schedules or job assignments to accommodate their religious beliefs, observances or practices. Likewise, employers may not force employees to participate in—or even attend—religious activities such as group prayers, talks or studies. For example, federal courts have held that employers failed to reasonably accommodate employees when they let employees cover their ears, sleep or read the newspaper during prayers and religious discussions at company events. It is also noteworthy that group prayers and religious discussions are likely discriminatory if employees opting out are disadvantaged by their failure to participate.

If you believe that you are a victim of discrimination or harassment based on your religion or that your employer has failed to make reasonable accommodations for your religious beliefs, observances or practices, you should consult with an attorney specializing in employment law. Most employment lawyers, such as the Law Offices of David S. Levy, provide free initial consultations concerning religious discrimination.

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