The purpose of this article is to help inform workplace professionals of their legal freedoms and rights at work. The primary hope is that it will instill confidence in people of faith, that they do not need to “check” their faith at the door of the office. Contrary to what many people think, there is no law requiring the workplace to be a religion-free zone. Federal and state laws protect the religious freedoms of employers and employees.
But employees must also understand that the company has some rightful expectations of them as well. Likewise the employer has religious freedom in how they run their business, incorporate biblical principles and in how they provide employees, customers, or vendors an opportunity to consider things of faith.
It should be remembered that there is no such thing as a religiously neutral environment. U.S. courts have ruled that “secular humanism” and “atheism” are in fact religious in nature because they promote a philosophy about God and a philosophy of life. The workplace is not a religious-free zone.
So the question merely becomes, “What freedom do I have to live out my beliefs at work without ridicule or harassment?" This area serves as an overview to those freedoms in the workplace.
[Note: The content in this article is a collection of information from various sources and should not be considered provision of legal advice. Personal situations and circumstances will vary. You should consult with an attorney if you need legal advice or assistance for your situation.]
Religious Freedom for Employees - EEOC
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment. Additionally it outlines some general principles of employees' rights in regards to coerced participation in employee programs that are contrary to the employees' religious beliefs. It also describes the employer's responsibility to reasonably accommodate employees' religious beliefs in the workplace.
Title VII covers employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state and local governments.
Employers may not treat employees or applicants less--or more--favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire individuals of a certain religion, may not impose stricter promotion requirements for persons of a certain religion, and may not impose more or different work requirements on an employee because of that employee's religious beliefs or practices.
Employees cannot be forced to participate--or not participate--in a religious activity as a condition of employment.
Employers must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
Religious Freedom for Employees – Guidelines
In general, this means that an employee can talk about religious matters at work, and here are some further guidelines and examples.
Religious Harassment of Others. If a co-worker asks the employee not to talk with him/her, the communication should cease. If the employee continues to pursue the co-worker, this could be considered harassment and could result in discipline by the employer.
Company Time. A company has a right to expect its employees to work on company business while on the job. Therefore, the company may restrict non-work-related speech during working hours. On breaks or at lunch the situation is different, but if the company does not want people talking about personal things while they are working, it has a right to say so. The only limit on this is that the company has to be consistent in applying its policies. So if the company only prohibits religious speech, that would be wrong. Additionally, if a company allows before-hours or after-hours meetings or discussion groups in company space, it must allow a Bible discussion group or other religious discussion group.
Personal Work Space. The issue of what an employee can put in his/her work space is more complicated. Generally, personal religious articles are permissible, but a company does have a right to set certain standards for the work environment if it chooses to do so. This means that a Bible on the desk where other personal items are allowed should be permitted, but a Bible on a machine stand, where personal items are not allowed and might present a danger, would not be permitted. Other situations will depend on company standards and work-related circumstances.
Religious Clothing or Symbols. Generally, an employer cannot regulate this. But if the employer has a uniform policy, or if there are legitimate safety concerns about jewelry, the employer has a right to limit these.
Government Employees. If the employer is a government employer AND the employee has a public role, there are special rules. Employees do not lose all of their constitutional rights, but they have to be careful when they are acting on behalf of the government.
This is a general explanation of the law. How it applies to individual employee situations depends upon a lot of factors. Our hope is that people of faith would have added confidence in living out their beliefs at work by understanding these guidelines.
Religious Freedom for Employees - FAQs
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was initially drawn up for federal government employees. However, Title VII has been applied more broadly to include both state and local governments and is usually extended to private employers but with the understanding that private employers have more discretion to dictate corporate policy on a variety of issues.
Employees may also be protected by state laws that deal with religious freedom of employees, however, it is most frequently Title VII that is viewed to set the terms for freedom and discrimination in the workplace. This FAQ list provides some specific questions and answers that would generally hold true in all states, however, employees who want to know if there are further protections should consult an attorney who is licensed in their particular state to determine if state law provides them with added legal standing.
Questions and answers below are provided by the American Center for Law and Justice – www.aclj.org.
Q: Can I share my faith with co-workers at work?
A: If required by their religious beliefs, an employee's religiously motivated expressions of faith are protected by Title VII. For instance, in conversations with other employees, you may refer to biblical passages on slothfulness and "work ethics." Employees can engage in religious speech at work as long as there is no actual imposition on co-workers or disruption of the work routine. Generally, no disruption of the work routine will occur if an employee's witnessing takes place during breaks or other free time. If other employees are permitted to use electronic mail and screen savers for speech that is not related to work, an employee who has a sincerely held religious belief to communicate their faith with others should also be able to use these modes of communication.
To ensure that his religious speech is protected by Title VII, an employee should first of all be able to honestly say that his religious beliefs require him to share the gospel whenever possible with willing co-workers during breaks or other free time. The employee must then inform the employer of this religious belief (preferably in writing). At that point, the employer must attempt to accommodate this religious belief unless it will cause the employer "undue hardship."
Q: Can I keep my Bible or other religious items at my desk?
A: Yes. As with witnessing to co-workers, an employee can bring his Bible to work and keep it at his desk if he is required to do so by sincerely held religious beliefs. To ensure that this religious belief of having a Bible or other religious items at work is protected by Title VII, an employee should first of all be able to honestly say that their religious beliefs require them to bring these items to work. The employee must then inform the employer of this religious belief (preferably in writing). The employer is then required to attempt to accommodate this belief.
Religious Freedom for Employers - FAQs
Many employers have sincerely held religious beliefs which they want their businesses to reflect. But federal and state laws prohibiting religious discrimination in employment have discouraged many business owners from communicating their religious convictions at work. The good news is that, just like employees, business owners do not have to check their faith at the door when they come to work. The following information provides some guidance for religious employers who want their business to reflect their faith.
Q: Do employers unlawfully discriminate if they base business objectives and goals upon biblical principles?
A: No. An employer does not discriminate on the basis of religion by affirming the faith of its owners in business objectives. "Title VII does not, and could not, require individual employers to abandon their religion." Employers must be careful, however, not to give prospective or current employees the perception that employment or advancement with the company depends on acquiescence in the religious beliefs of the employer. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. For instance, applications for employment should state that applicants are considered for all positions without regard to religion. This statement should also be included in any orientation materials, employee handbooks, and employee evaluation forms. Of course, employers must also be sure that this statement is accurate by not discriminating on the basis of religion.
How do I know if I have experienced religious discrimination?
Many people are not sure what constitutes religious discrimination in the workplace. There are many ways to discriminate against people; some are very obvious and others are more subtle. The subtle discriminations are often hard to recognize and harder still to prove in a religious discrimination claim. Therefore, we will look primarily at more outward forms of religious discrimination.
Religious discrimination includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- Firing an employee because of that employee's Christian beliefs;
- Loss of promotion due to one's Christian witness at work;
- Failure to give an employee a raise until the employee no longer spends free time (such as breaks or lunch) discussing religious beliefs with other employees.
Guidelines on Religious Freedom in Government
In 1997, the White House issued guidelines on religious exercise and religious expression in the federal workplace. Private employers do not have to adhere to these exact guidelines, but these guidelines can be helpful to shed light on how principles of religious freedom apply in both government and private-sector employment.
Because of the length of these federal guidelines, we have chosen not to list them here. The complete text of the guidelines is available here.
If you feel you might need legal advice and/or services in this area, the following organizations can provide more detailed information and further research into specific situations where religious discrimination may be occurring. Click on the links below: