Religious Discrimination

Religious Discrimination

Dolley Law, LLC handles matters involving claims of religious discrimination in the workplace. Like other protected groups, individuals who hold sincere religious beliefs are generally protected under federal and state laws from discrimination or unfavorable treatment due to said beliefs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) both prohibit religious discrimination in many forms. Our attorneys are very familiar with both laws and know how to handle claims of religious discrimination in a manner that will protect your rights and interests.

Title VII and MHRA

Federal law defines “religion” as “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the agency entrusted with enforcement of Title VII—broadly considers “religion” to include the beliefs, or lack of beliefs, of individuals such as atheists or others not belonging to organized sects. See Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 90 n. 4 (1977) (Marshall, J., dissenting); see also, e.g., Young v. Southwestern Sav. and Loan Ass’n, 509 F.2d 140 (5th Cir. 1975) (concluding atheist was subject to religious discrimination).

Generally, under Title VII, an individual must show the following to make out a prima facie case of religious discrimination: (1) he or she is a member of a protected class due to his or her religious beliefs; (2) he or she met the employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) he or she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination. See Shirrell v. St. Francis Med. Ctr., 793 F.3d 881, 887 (8th Cir. 2015). Once this showing is made, the employer bears the burden of showing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the challenged employment action. Id. If the employer makes such a showing, the burden shifts back to the employee to show the employer’s proffered reason is pre-textual or false. Id.

The MHRA similarly prohibits religious discrimination in employment. See § 213.055 RSMo. (“[i]t shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer…to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual…because of such individual’s…religion). Missouri courts generally defer to federal case law construing similar claims under federal law. Sedalia No. 200 School Dist. v. Mo. Comm. on Human Rights, 843 S.W.2d 928, 930 (Mo. Ct. App. 1992).

The religious discrimination protections under Title VII and the MHRA also prohibit workplace harassment based on religious belief. See Workplace Harassment. The EEOC has noted that, while the law does not necessarily prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not serious, religious harassment can be unlawful when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment action or decision. In addition, both laws prohibit retaliation in the workplace based on religious belief. See Retaliation.

Reasonable Accommodation

Under federal law, it a violation of law for an employer to not reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief if such accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. However, this general rule does not mean an employer must fulfill any accommodations requested by an individual, or even the individual’s preferred accommodation. The EEOC has noted that flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, lateral transfers, and exceptions to dress or grooming rules may be examples of religious accommodations.

Under Title VII, an individual must show the following to make out a prima facie case of a failure to reasonably accommodate a religious belief: (1) he or she had a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement; (2) he or she notified the employer of the belief; and (3) the employer took an adverse action with respect to the individual because he or she did not comply with the requirement. See Seaworth v. Pearson, 203 F.3d 1056, 1057 (8th Cir. 2000); but see EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. 768 (2015) (noting “[i]t is significant that § 2000e-2(a)(1) does not impose a knowledge requirement”). Once an individual makes such a showing, the burden shifts to the employer to show that a reasonable accommodation was offered or that accommodation of the religious belief would result in undue hardship to the employer. Seaworth, 203 F.3d at 1057.

Courts address the question of whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship under the specific facts of each case. Nonetheless, the United States Supreme Court has generally noted that an accommodation causes undue hardship whenever it results in more than de minimis cost to the employer. See Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60, 67 (1986); but see TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 93 n. 6 (Marshall, J., dissenting) (“[a]s a matter of law, I seriously question whether simple English usage permits ‘undue hardship’ to be interpreted to mean ‘more than de minimis cost’”). In addition, an employer need not accommodate an individual’s religious belief where it would require the employer to violate other laws—such as tax laws. See, e.g., Seaworth, 203 F.3d at 1057 (employer need not accommodate individual’s refusal to use an SSN where the individual believed an SSN represents the “mark of the beast” as described in the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation because use of an SSN is a legal requirement—not an employment requirement). However, employers should be careful in raising such a defense of needing to comply with a law or regulation because it may invite additional questions regarding, and challenges to, the constitutionality of the law or regulation in question.

First Amendment

The United States Supreme Court recently addressed tension that can arise between anti-discrimination laws and fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment, including the freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. See Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. V. Colorado Civil Rights Comm., 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018). Masterpiece Cakeshop involved a claim of sexual orientation discrimination by a gay couple against a devout Christian baker who refused to make the couple a cake for their marriage based on his religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Colorado courts affirmed the determination of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (“Commission”) that the baker violated the couple’s anti-discrimination rights. But the United States Supreme Court disagreed, emphasizing the hostility of, and a lack of neutral treatment by, the Commission during the underlying proceedings with respect to the baker and his religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court concluded this hostility violated the Colorado government’s duty under the First Amendment to not base laws or regulations upon hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint. While Masterpiece Cakeshop concerned discrimination in public accommodations (as opposed to employment), it is a good example of the conflict that may arise between the protections afforded by various anti-discrimination laws and the protections for free speech and exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) after the United States Supreme Court virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify burdens on religious exercises imposed by laws neutral toward religion. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb. RFRA explicitly recognized that “laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb(a)(2). Accordingly, RFRA prohibits federal, state or local governments from substantially burdening an employee’s free exercise of religion without a showing of a compelling interest and a showing that the least restrictive means are used to achieve that interest. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a)-(b).

While RFRA does not change the requirements of Title VII, it can impact the analysis of certain types of religious discrimination claims brought thereunder. See generally 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-3. For example, where an employer claims that some law or regulation limits its ability to accommodate the employee’s religious belief, an analysis of the constitutionality of such law or regulation under RFRA may follow. And because RFRA creates a presumption that a law or regulation is unconstitutional when it substantially burdens an employee’s religious exercise, an employer may only refuse to accommodate an employee if it can defend the law or regulation as constitutional. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a) (“Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” except where applied burden furthers a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means). The United States Supreme Court has noted, “[t]he least-restrictive means standard is exceptionally demanding.” Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. 682, 728 (2014). And this is why having to defend or establish the constitutionality of a neutral law that substantially burdens religious belief can invite difficult challenges.

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If you are facing a matter involving questions or concerns about religious discrimination in the workplace, contact Dolley Law, LLC by phone at (314) 645-4100 or by email at to set up a confidential consultation.

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