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Rise in Religious Discrimination Lawsuits

The EEOC has filed 12 religious discrimination lawsuits in fiscal year 2013, more than in the previous year, and indicative of the increasing attention being paid to it in recent months.  In general, this may be one of the areas of more frequent activity in employment law in the coming years.

Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees or applicants based on religion.  Concurrent with that prohibition is a responsibility to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.  The EEOC has recommended that employers avoid challenging the validity of an employee’s religious beliefs, and instead argue that accommodating the belief constitutes an undue hardship.  The article notes that between 1992 and 2007 religious discrimination claims increased by 100 percent, and that the EEOC has taken notice and increased its steps to educated employers about prohibited practices.  In 2012 the EEOC received its second-highest amount of religious discrimination complaints ever.

Some of the religious discrimination cases filed by the EEOC can provide employers with lessons in what conduct is prohibited.  Many of the cases concern refusals by employers to accommodate specific requirements of a particular religion, such as growing a beard, not working specific days or hours, or wearing particular clothing.  Others involved the failure of an employer to allow an employee to use equipment that did not violate her religious beliefs, or company-wide mandatory attendance at a religious presentation.  Most of these seem easily remedied- as none involved essential job functions or could not be accommodated with some minimal degree of creativity.

The EEOC has also settled a variety of religious discrimination suits.  While, as the article notes, the monetary amounts are not as high as those obtained in the agency’s systemic discrimination consent decrees, there is still a substantial amount of money on the line.  Three of the highlighted cases concerned an employer’s failure to provide an employee with a day off to attend to a religious matter, another dealt with the failure of an employer to accommodate religious clothing, and two others concerned more blatant religious discrimination, including one where an employer asked whether a job applicant would come to work early to attend bible study.

Again, these cases serve as reminders that employers need to take religious discrimination claims seriously.  On the flip side, for employees who feel they have been discriminated against, these types of claims are leading to real action and employees should not feel hesitant to bring forward allegations of religious discrimination.