Question:

I am a supervisor who has been asked to investigate an allegation of religious discrimination in another department of the company where I work. A Christian employee, who is known by others as a Christian by openly sharing many activities he had been involved with in his church and the community, made the allegation. This employee is very well liked within his department and there has never been any issue before. During a luncheon, after conversation arose about recent news events, another employee challenged the Christian employee for not getting involved in the ongoing debates and stated to the group that the Christian employee was a fundamentalist. The employee did not complain of the “fundamentalist” comment, but has now complained that even before the luncheon he was subjected to hostility by way of jokes in front of other co-workers, he started receiving less favorable job assignments, there was a decrease in his work schedule, and he was told not to discuss his religious activities and beliefs with anyone at work. He feels he is being treated this way because of his Christian faith. Do you have any guidance for me with respect to defining religious discrimination?

Answer:

Title VII and the FEHA prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religious practices or beliefs. The term “religious practices” is not limited to established religions such as Islam, Judaism or Catholicism. Instead, the EEOC has defined religious practices or beliefs to include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” The fact that no religious group espouses such belief, or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief, will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee or applicant.

While State and Federal law permit religious expression by employees, supervisors, and managers, it prohibits harassment based on religion. Similar to sexual harassment, such harassment has been defined as conduct which unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance and which creates a hostile environment.

Religious harassment can take many forms. It frequently takes the form of coercion of employee participation or non-participation in religious activities. A supervisor or manager may not, explicitly or implicitly, insist that an employee participate in religious activities or hold particular religious views as a condition of continued employment, promotion, preferred job assignments, or any other benefit or privilege of employment. Nor may an employer insist that an employee not participate in religious activities outside the workplace or not hold particular religious views.

Religious harassment can also include abusive conduct, such as the repeated use of religiously derogatory language. Whether the use of religiously derogatory language rises to the level of harassment will depend on the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency and severity of the harassing conduct, whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance. Clearly, the repeated use of religiously derogatory language in an assaultive manner can constitute hostile environment religious harassment. A single incident, if sufficiently severe, could also constitute harassment. This is especially true where the employer knew, or should have known, that the co-workers were engaging in such conduct and failed to take any action to stop the conduct.

Your question does not include enough information to determine whether this employee was actually discriminated against based on his religion, but his allegations are consistent with such a claim. I suggest that you get further facts from the employee including the names of any witnesses who would support his claims. Thereafter, you should conduct an objective and thorough investigation, which focuses on the facts as opposed to the employee or his co-workers subjective feelings on this sensitive subject. I also suggest that you work closely with an attorney with experience in this area or, if applicable, your company’s Human Resources Department. They can assist you in conducting an investigation that is fair to all concerned and that will help protect your company against legal claims by the employee who has made the allegation, and any employee who might later be disciplined for inappropriate behavior.
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