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Religious Discrimination

Understand your civil rights in the workplace

It can be difficult for a religious individual to navigate your religious rights in the workplace, especially if your observance or religious holidays are less mainstream of commercialized than big holidays. Employers are legally obliged to provide some religious accommodation, especially in terms of religious belief and observances, but it's quite understandable that you might be hesitant to ask for time off. It's important to know that you are protected by both California employment law as well as federal law. In fact, California law provisions are actually stronger than federal law. Your employer may not harass you or discriminate against you for religious reasons.

As a religious person with sincerely held religious, moral or ethical beliefs, you re entitled to legal protection by California state and federal law. It applies to all people and not only to those who follow the organized, traditional religions of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism.If you are married to or associated with a person from another religion, you are also protected from discrimination.

Workplace discrimination comes in many forms and typically involves negative treatment by the employer, co-workers and clients due to a person's religious beliefs or observance. Common forms of workplace discrimination include:

  • wrongful termination
  • denial of raises or promotions
  • denial of shifts
  • segregation to no-customer contact roles.

How Does the Law Define Religion?

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) law defines a religious creed as a set of beliefs, practices and observations that a person sincerely holds. It occupies the same level of importance to the person as traditionally organized religions hold for its followers. The California Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012 further define it to include all aspects of religious belief, such as:

  • Grooming practices (hair grooming, head or face coverings, clothing, jewelry);
  • Prohibition against wearing certain types of clothing;
  • Days on which work is prohibited;
  • Handling of prohibited products.

California's Second District Appellate Court ruled that philosophies that reflect secular or moral beliefs (rather than religious) do not qualify under the FEHA laws in a case in which a vegan sought protection. Beliefs such as veganism are secular or moral in nature, and not religious, which means that it is not protected under the religious discrimination section of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Employees must notify employers that they require certain grooming accommodations due to religious reasons. The employee may reasonably request more information, which opens the door for both to interact and process the request. Provided that the accommodation would not post any undue hardship, the employer must grant the accommodation. Similarly, employees may not be forced to participate or in religious activities as an employment condition

However, if the employer does not have to grant it if it can show why the accommodation would impose undue hardship or if it would:

  • impose more burdensome or potentially hazardous work on other employees;
  • infringe upon other employees' rights;
  • decrease workplace efficiency;
  • compromise safety in the workplace;
  • be too costly.

Employers must illustrate that they have "explored any available reasonable, alternative means of accommodating the religious belief or observance, including the possibilities of excusing the person from those duties that conflict with his or her religious belief" or that they have tried "permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another person." according to Govt. Code. § 12940(l)(1) before they may fire a person due to conflict between the employee's religious practices and the employment. The employer must therefore show that providing the necessary accommodation would place undue hardship on the business.

Employers must make exceptions to their workplace appearance standards for reasonable religious accommodations, provided it does not cause undue hardships. Employers may not force employees who regularly interact with the public or with other employees to different positions where they are segregated due to their religious observance or dress due to feared or actual customer preferences.

While federal laws do excuse California-based businesses from providing religious accommodations if doing so would cause it to suffer minimal hardship, state law requires that employers prove that the proposed religious accommodation will cause the business significant expense or difficulty. Attorneys usually rely on California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, FEHA Govt. Code. § 12940,  because it does not limit damages. Also, FEHA is applicable to all companies with five or more employees, while federal law is only applicable to businesses that employ more than fifteen people.

Employers are obliged to consider any reasonably available means for accommodating the person's observance or belief. FEHA law provides for observance of holy days as well as time to travel time to and from the religious observance. As such, accommodations would include your employer allowing you to perform duties at another time, or if that is not possible, to let another person do it. Typical religious workplace accommodations may include:

  • job reassignments
  • workplace practice or policy modifications
  • flexible work hour scheduling
  • voluntary shift swaps or substitutions
  • accommodation for prayer
  • time off to attend religious services
  • days off for observing holy days.

Job modifications should be provided to enable employees to exercise their religious beliefs, including:

  • scheduled changes for holy days or religious observance
  • regular breaks to pray throughout the day in a private area
  • permission to pray during break at work

California AB 987 protects religious employees against retaliations from employers after requesting reasonable religious accommodations. These accommodations are typically assessed on a case-by-case basis. Although employers are obliged to provide religious accommodations, some industries require all employees to work on nationally recognized holidays. This provision, including all the required dates should be included in your employment contract or employee handbook.

Ideally, you should discuss your requirements with your employer and understand their expectations well in advance to ensure proper scheduling. If your employer fails to provide religious accommodations that would not cause undue hardship, you may be the victim of religious discrimination in the workplace, and you should speak to an employment attorney.

What is Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?

California state law provides much stronger protection than federal law for claims in which employers fail to accommodate a worker's religious needs. It instructs employees as follows:

"Explore any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating the religious belief or observance, including the possibilities of excusing the person from those duties that conflict with his or her religious belief or observance or permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another person..."

In addition, California law expressly requires that companies allow exceptions in terms of corporate appearance standards for religious reasons. Also California regulations are stronger in terms of reasonable accommodation. It states that a "reasonable accommodation" completely eliminates a worker's conflict between his or her religion and employment duties. As such, when working on a Saturday is in conflict with the employee's religion, working even one Saturday a month will be a violation or religious belief, and therefore does not qualify as a reasonable accommodation.

The California and federal laws prohibits discrimination in in all aspects of employment, including:

  • hiring and firing practices
  • earnings
  • assignments
  • promotions
  • fringe benefits
  • training
  • and other conditions or terms of employment.

It is illegal for company supervisors, co-workers, or clients to harass individuals due to their religion. Harassment and religious discrimination in the workplace includes frequent and severe harassment that creates an offensive or hostile work environment, or which causes adverse employment decisions that results in demotion or employment termination.

However, the law is more lenient in terms of:

  • offhand comments
  • simple teasing
  • isolated or less serious incidents

Understanding Undue Burden

Employees are not obliged to provide accommodations for religious observance or beliefs that will impose an undue burden on the company. Meeting the undue burden standard under federal religious discrimination cases involves proving that it would result in de minimis burden or minimal additional costs to the employer. Under California law, the standard is raised to significant expense or difficulty, considering:

  • the cost and nature of the accommodations;
  • the impact of the accommodation based on the company's overall financial resources and the operations of the facility;
  • the company's financial resources;
  • the facility's geographic separateness.

In most cases, employers will not easily meet undue burden standards when it comes to dress standards. It is typically easier for employers to meet undue burden tests in the requested accommodation or religious practice presents legitimate safety concerns.

The stricter the legal standards, the more often disputes end up in litigation.

Religious Entities Exempt From Religion Discrimination Suits

Although the FEHA laws on religion discrimination apply to almost all employees in California, nonprofit religious institutions are exempt. As such, religious entities may refuse to hire individuals with different religious affiliations.

The same exemptions do not apply to public health care facilities that are run by religious institutions. Therefore, as long as employees from other affiliations abstain from religious duties in the workplace, the employer may not discriminate against them.

Damages in Religion Discrimination Cases

If the California courts find in your favor, you are entitled to recovering an amount equal to the salary you would have earned from the employment in question. If your employment was terminated due to religious discrimination, you should be awarded your annual income for every year of unemployment.

In some instances, California law makes provision for pain and suffering. As such, you may receive compensation for past and future pain and suffering and ailments that arose as a result of the discrimination, including anxiety, sleeplessness and stress.

Due to the typically small damages in religious discrimination cases, California law includes an attorney fees provision as an incentive for lawyers to take cases.

Punitive damages awards are available in certain cases, provided the victim can prove that the employer showed malice, or active with oppression or fraud. Punitive damages are imposed with the aim to prevent companies from repeating such behaviors.

It's not uncommon for religion discrimination cases (as with most other employment cases) to be settled out of court. Settlements are subject to confidentiality clauses, which makes it difficult to calculate average settlement figures. However, amounts are typically well below six figures. However, if a case progresses to court, judges and juries may draw different conclusions, even in light of the same facts, and that may influence the settlement.

Religious Discrimination Statute of Limitations

As with most cases, a statute of limitations applies to religious discrimination, so it is important to act immediately. You usually have a year from the termination date to obtain your right-to-sue letter from DFEH. After that, your attorney has a year to file a lawsuit with federal or state court.

The deadline for public employees is shorter. You may only have six months to file a lawsuit, so it is important to get in touch with a discrimination lawyer as soon as possible.

If you have been the victim of religious discrimination in the workplace, you should retain counsel as soon as possible. The law is complex with many subtle nuances. There are many different issues that can cause you to lose your case, or substantial compensation at the very least. Don't let errors such as filing fees stand in the way of the compensation you deserve.

Protection against religious discrimination in the workplace provides equal employment opportunities for all Americans, despite their age, faith, creed or race. Religion extends into every aspect of a person's life, including the workplace and should therefore be respected.

California employment lawyers work hard to create fair workplaces for all Americans, no matter their fathers. Let us help you protection your religious freedoms in the workplace. We provide legal support to individuals of all faiths from our office in San Diego. We will review the merits of your case to see whether your employer or co-workers are indeed guilty of misconduct and religion discrimination in the workplace. We offer a range of mediation and litigation services for your specific needs.

Contact us today at 800-905-1856 to schedule an initial consultation.

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