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Navigating Religious Beliefs in the Workplace




Overview

There are many circumstances when an individual's religious observances, beliefs and viewpoints enter the workplace. Consider how a non-Christian employee feels when holiday parties are called Christmas parties, when only Christian holidays are observed at work or when work schedules conflict with the employee's own religious observances. Add to these discriminatory actions such as a manager retaliating against a worker seeking a religious accommodation or a co-worker making religion-based derogatory comments. There is a legal framework in which employers must navigate these issues, but also an opportunity to provide a welcoming and inclusive workplace as a major factor in attracting and retaining top talent.

Everyone has a viewpoint on religion or spiritual belief, be it atheistic, dogmatic, academic, indifferent or somewhere in between. Managing these various points of view with respect and equity can create a culture where employees are happier and more productive, while also making legal compliance easier for the employer.

Inclusive Practices

Employers now recognize it is essential to establish a work environment where differences are treated with respect and inclusion. Diversity, equity and inclusion programs, including employee training, should include religious differences along with other dimensions of diversity. Make it clear that it is the responsibility of every employee to be aware, knowledgeable and respectful of a wide range of religious and nonreligious beliefs.

The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding provides resources on building respect for religious differences and reducing prejudice, hatred and violence, including tips for respectful communication and a religious diversity workplace checklist.

Allyship training and initiatives are often focused on race or sexual orientation but should also include information on how to be an ally for coworkers of different faiths. An ally is a person who actively supports an underrepresented group of which they are not a member. Employees should be encouraged to speak up for others and take actions such as supporting a co-worker who is subjected to insensitive or harassing conduct. For example, when a hiring manager indicates not wanting to hire a candidate who wears a headscarf because "they probably can't work the schedule we require," others involved in the hiring decision should speak up and question that assumption. Or when an employee who is a Jehovah's Witness declines to attend a company celebration and is referred to as anti-social and unappreciative by a co-worker, other employees can take the opportunity to show support by letting their co-worker know they respect their colleague's religious preferences.

Company events such as holiday parties can also become hot-button concerns, especially when it comes to the types of celebrations and scheduling. First and foremost, include input from employees when planning events. It may not be well-known that some Muslims don't drink alcohol and don't want to attend an event where alcohol is served or that there are non-Christian holidays in December that an employer will want to consider when choosing a date for the event. Consider having an end-of-year celebration rather than focusing the event on the holidays. From meal planning to gift giving, employers have several opportunities during the winter holidays to show respect for religious differences. See How to Make Holiday Celebrations More Inclusive.

Other company practices throughout the year should also be inclusive. Consider rotating the day of the week that social events are held to avoid excluding individuals who can't attend on a particular day. Be mindful of religious practices when scheduling meetings and events. For example, a working lunch during Ramadan could exclude Muslims who are fasting.

Floating holidays and flexible scheduling practices, such as compressed workweeks, can benefit all employees while also recognizing that not every employee celebrates the same holidays.

Educating employees about different religious practices can reduce some workplace conflict due to misunderstandings and can also foster a more inclusive work environment. Consider hosting voluntary lunch-and-learn-type gatherings and invite employees to share about their religious practices or celebrate World Religion Day (the third Sunday in January) with education and activities planned by a diverse group of employees.

Recognize that some employees have no religious affiliation. According to a 2020 Gallup study, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has almost tripled since 2000, based on a three-year data set collected each decade, with younger generations more likely to have no religious affiliation.

Additional inclusive practices in the workplace may include:

  • Provide "quiet rooms" or spaces employees can use to pray or take a quiet break.
  • Rather than discouraging religious discussions at work, provide employees with training on how to learn about their co-workers' religious preferences with respectful discussions.
  • Ensure company policies don't inadvertently discriminate, such as dress code policies that don't allow for religious garb or facial hair.

Legal Framework

The primary law governing religious discrimination and accommodation is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though some state laws may also provide additional protection.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to prohibit discrimination based on and reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious, ethical and moral beliefs or practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

Religious practices may be based on theistic beliefs or nontheistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Religious observances or practices may include:

  • Attending worship services.
  • Praying.
  • Wearing religious garb or symbols. Displaying religious objects.
  • Adhering to certain dietary rules.
  • Proselytizing or other forms of religious expression.
  • Refraining from certain activities.

Religious discrimination and harassment may occur when applicants or employees are required or coerced to abandon, alter or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment, or when applicants or employees are subjected to unwelcome remarks or conduct based on religion. This includes employees who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.

Religious coercion

According to the EEOC, "Title VII is violated when an employer or supervisor explicitly or implicitly coerces an employee to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of receiving a job benefit or privilege or avoiding an adverse employment action."

For example, in 2018 a jury awarded $5.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 employees of United Health Programs of America, Inc., finding that the employees were forced to engage in a variety of religious practices at work, including prayer, religious workshops and spiritual cleansing rituals and that at least one employee was fired for opposing these practices.

Hostile work environment

A hostile work environment is created when an employee is subject to intimidation, ridicule and insult based on religion that is severe and/or ongoing. According to the EEOC, to establish a case of religious hostile work environment harassment, an employee must show the following:

  • The harassment was based on the employee's religion.
  • The harassment was unwelcome.
  • The harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment by creating an objectively and subjectively hostile or abusive work environment.
  • There is a basis for employer liability.

See Swift Aviation to Pay $50,000 to Settle EEOC National Origin and Religious Discrimination Lawsuit.

Exceptions

Title VII includes an exception for defined "religious organizations" and "religious educational institutions." Under the exception, religious organizations are permitted to give employment preference to adherents of the same religion. This applies only to those institutions whose "purpose and character are primarily religious." See EEOC Section 12: Religious Discrimination and Supreme Court Expands Religious-School Exemption from Civil Rights Laws.

State Laws

It is not uncommon for state and local laws to be even more generous than federal law requirements. For example, see Portland's New Law Adds Job Protections for Atheists.

Employers need to understand the state and local laws in each location in which they have employees working and ensure compliance with state, local and federal requirements. See SHRM's Multistate Laws Comparison Tool.

Making Accommodations

A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that allows employees to practice their religion or sincerely held ethical or moral beliefs without causing undue hardship to the employer. Modifications to workplace practices, policies or procedures, such as flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions, swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers, are a few examples of how an employer might accommodate an employee's religious beliefs, practices and observances.

Failure to reasonably accommodate employees can be costly. In 2018, United Parcel Service (UPS) settled a religious discrimination suit for $4.9 million after the EEOC charged the package delivery company with failing to accommodate individuals whose religious practices conflicted with the company's appearance policy, specifically a policy prohibiting men from wearing beards and growing their hair beyond collar length. See UPS to Pay $4.9 Million to Settle EEOC Religious Discrimination Suit.

Employers should establish policies and procedures for requesting religious accommodations. The EEOC has made available to the public its own internal accommodation request form due to the increase in religious accommodation requests to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Types of Accommodations

Requests for accommodations come in all shapes and sizes, and each request should be considered individually. The following are some common examples of religious accommodation requests in the workplace.

Flexible work schedules

An employer may be able to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs by allowing flexible arrival and departure times, floating or optional holidays, flexible work breaks, use of lunch time in exchange for early departure, staggered work hours, and other means to enable an employee to make up time lost due to the observance of religious practices.   

See:

Must employers allow employees to have religious holidays off?
Must an employer accommodate an employee who cannot work Saturdays due to religious beliefs? 

Vaccine exemptions

Many employers require employees to receive vaccinations to reduce the spread of communicable diseases in the workplace. Employer-required flu vaccinations have been a common practice for years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made mandatory vaccination even more popular. Employers must consider reasonable accommodation requests from employees with sincerely held religious objections to vaccinations.

See:
What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws Section L: Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates.
4 Steps for Handling Religious Objections to Workplace Vaccine Mandates
Can an employer have a 'vaccinated-only' hiring policy?

Dress and grooming policies

Generally speaking, employers have the right to set boundaries and create dress codes, grooming standards and policies, including wearing jewelry or displaying tattoos, body art or piercings. When an employer institutes dress or grooming policies that conflict with an employee's religious beliefs or practices, the employee may ask for an exception to the policy as a reasonable accommodation. Unless the employer can demonstrate an undue hardship, religious discrimination may be found when an employer fails to accommodate the employee's religious dress or grooming requirements or practices.

In a case brought against Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., the EEOC alleged that the hamburger chain refused to offer a server any accommodation for his Kemetic religion, an ancient Egyptian faith, by ordering him to cover his tattoos and by illegally firing him when he failed to comply. The employee's religious beliefs, he claimed, made it a sin to intentionally conceal the religious inscriptions. Red Robin settled the case for $150,000. See May employers have dress code requirements that prohibit all visible tattoos and piercings?

Health and safety issues are a special concern in some industries such as health care, hospitality, manufacturing and corrections. Employers must enforce certain guidelines to protect employees or others from injury, including restrictions related to dress and appearance. Employers may be required to enforce such restrictions and may have to deny requests for exemptions from such policies. When workplace safety, health or security are at stake, employees can be prevented from wearing their religious attire in the workplace according to question number 12 in the EEOC publication, Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.

In one case, three Muslim women employed in a prison requested accommodation to wear head coverings at work. They were denied the accommodation based on safety grounds. The prison successfully argued that the head coverings posed hazards in that an inmate could use them to strangle the employees, the coverings could make it difficult to identify employees or the head coverings could be used to hide contraband.

Religious expression

According to the EEOC an employer should not try to suppress all religious expression in the workplace. Title VII requires that an employer accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs, including engaging in religious expression in the workplace, to the extent that the employee can do so without undue hardship on the operation of the business.

When it comes to permitting religious expression such as prayer, Bible study or proselytizing in the workplace, many employers are concerned about the disruptive impact it might have on their business operations. The EEOC cautions employers not to speculate on possible disruptions but to train managers to gauge the actual disruption posed by religious expression in the workplace. See Do we have to allow employees to proselytize or use religious expressions/greetings?

Managers should also be trained in how to identify accommodations that might be offered to avoid disruption. For example, some employers may designate an unused or private workplace location for prayer or Bible study to prevent disrupting other workers. Employers should consider incorporating into anti-harassment training for managers and employees a discussion of religious expression and the need for all employees to be sensitive to the beliefs or nonbeliefs of others. See Should employers allow employees to use the conference room for Bible study?

See also this sample policy from the Department of Labor (DOL) for its employees: Religious Expression in the DOL Workplace.

Employers that allow the use of company facilities for Bible study should ensure that employees are free from religious discrimination or harassment. This means making sure that participation is voluntary, employees who choose not to participate do not experience explicit or subtle forms of coercion or hostility, and participation or lack of it is not used as a factor in any employment decisions such as work assignments, promotions or performance evaluations. See Prayer and Meditation Rooms Can Increase Inclusion.

Determining if a Religious Belief Is Sincerely Held

Title VII defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon and that may be unfamiliar to an employer. The EEOC cautions that employers should ordinarily assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief; however, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, observance, or practice, the employer would be justified in seeking additional supporting information.

According to the EEOC, factors that—either alone or in combination—might undermine the credibility of an employee's claim of a sincerely held belief include:

  • Whether the employee has behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief.
  • Whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for secular reasons.
  • Whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons).
  • Whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

See:
Can we require documentation from a religious authority to verify an employee's request for religious accommodation?  
Viewpoint: Vaccination Accommodation—Is That Religious Request Sincere?
EEOC Guidance: Section 12 Religious Discrimination

Undue Hardship

An employer is not obligated to provide a religious accommodation to an employee if the accommodation would impose a burden that is "substantial in the overall context of an employer's business" (Groff v. DeJoy, June 29, 2023). The Supreme Court also stated that, "Courts must apply the test to take into account all relevant factors in the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer."

To prove undue hardship, the employer must demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee's proposed accommodation would involve.

Guidance from the EEOC indicates that administrative costs such as the expense of rearranging schedules and paying temporary overtime payments will not constitute more than a de minimis cost to an employer. More significant costs that may be found to cause undue hardship include the regular payment of premium wages or the hiring of additional employees to provide an accommodation.

Employers must consider each accommodation request on a case-by-case basis, and according to the EEOC, may consider factors such as the following:

  • The type of workplace.
  • The nature of the employee's duties.
  • The identifiable cost of the accommodation in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer.
  • The number of employees who need a particular accommodation.

In addition to monetary costs, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees' job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee's share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. See How do I know if a work accommodation will create an undue hardship?

Additional Resources

Religious Accommodation Policy

Religious Accommodation Request Form

Religious Accommodation Policy: Absences

Leave Policy: Floating Holidays

Diversity Equity and Inclusion Policy

Attire and Grooming Policy

Dress Code: Jewelry and Tattoo Policy

Seasonal Office Decorations Policy

Harassment (Race/Color, Religion, National Origin and Disability) Training for Supervisors