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Religious Discrimination

February 12, 2014

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), a state statute, it is unlawful to discriminate against or harass anyone in the workplace on the basis of religion.  Employers also have an obligation to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of employees.

Claims of illegal religious discrimination typically involve either a claim that an employee or job applicant has been treated unfavorably because religion or a claim that the employer has not reasonably accommodated an employee’s religious practices.  In order to avoid constitutional issues under First Amendment protections of free exercise of religion and prohibitions on the establishment of religion, “religion” is viewed broadly for purposes of religious discrimination, and a “religious belief” is a sincere belief that occupies a place in the life of the believer parallel to that of God in traditional religions.  Sincere religious, moral, or ethical beliefs, including non-traditional religions and atheism, may be protected.

Claims of unfavorable treatment because of religion can arise due to the employee’s religious beliefs, because of the beliefs of that individual’s spouse or associate, or because of that individual’s connection to, or involvement in, a religious organization or group.  With certain exceptions for religious organizations (discussed below), employers are not permitted to make firing, layoff, training, pay, demotion, promotion, or other employment decisions based upon an employee’s or an applicant’s religion.

Title VII requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations for the religious beliefs/practices of employees and job applicants unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.  Issues involving reasonable accommodation may arise when an employer’s work rules or policies conflict with an employee’s religious practices.  Reasonable accommodation of religious practices may include things like changes in scheduling to enable attendance at religious services and certain flexibility in an employer’s dress code to respect religious customs.  What reasonable accommodation may be legally required, and when undue hardship exists, are determined on a case by case basis.  Undue hardship may involve factors such as whether the accommodation would violate seniority provisions of a collective bargaining agreement, the cost of the accommodation in terms of money or efficiency in replacing the absent worker, or whether non-religious employees or employees of other religions would have to work at undesirable times.

While the terminology of “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship” uses the same words as are used in the context of the reasonable accommodation of disabled employees, the application of the terms is different.

Several exceptions apply to Title VII’s coverage of religious discrimination.  Title VII contains a provision indicating that religious corporations may discriminate in with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the religious organization.  Title VII has a similar provision relating to employees of religious schools, colleges or universities.  If applicable, these provisions permit religious discrimination in favor of members of the particular religion operating the organization.  Constitutional issues of church autonomy under the First Amendment underlie what courts have recognized as the “ministerial exception.”  If an employee is found to be a “ministerial” employee, Title VII and a number of other employment statutes may not apply to employment decisions involving that employee.  The theoretical basis for the “ministerial exception” is that the government should not interfere in a religious organization’s authority to select who will minister to the faithful.  Disputes in this area can be complex and fact based.

Protections against religious discrimination under Title VII cover employers with 15 or more employees and protections under the PHRA cover employers with 4 or more employees. A charge, or complaint, alleging religious discrimination must be filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) (How to File an EEOC Charge) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”) (How to File a PHRC Charge).  The PHRC requires that a charge be filed within 180 days of the alleged unlawful practice, while the EEOC’s deadline is 300 days.  The EEOC and PHRC investigate charges of discrimination to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the alleged discrimination occurred.

Employees or job applicants who prove successfully that an adverse employment action was taken against them based on their religion may obtain remedies including compensatory and punitive damages.  It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee or applicant who has filed a charge of discrimination, complained about discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination proceeding.

Employees and job applicants who work for, or apply for jobs with, employers in the City of Pittsburgh are afforded additional protections against religious discrimination by the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (“CHR”). The City Code, in its definition of an employer, excludes “any religious, fraternal, charitable or sectarian organization which is not supported in whole or part by any governmental appropriations.”

Employees and job applicants who work for, or apply for jobs with, employers in Allegheny County are afforded additional protections against religious discrimination by the Human Relations Commission Code of Ordinance. The Code, in its definition of an employer, excludes “any religious, fraternal, charitable or sectarian organization.”

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