Religious Discrimination

Rob Wiley: My name is Rob Wiley and today I'm going to be speaking with Austin employment lawyer, Colin Walsh, about religious discrimination. So Colin, we know that in our workplaces, we have people of all kinds of faiths and that are all working together. But sometimes people get singled out because of their religious beliefs. What does the law have to say about religious discrimination in the workplace?

Colin Walsh: Well, the law very clearly says that religious discrimination is wrong. It's unlawful under both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Texas Labor Code.

Rob Wiley: So what are some examples of religious discrimination that you may have seen in the workplace?

Colin Walsh: Well just generally treating people differently because of their religion. One way that we see that is, say for example somebody wants to wear a religious item of clothing. If there's no reason to prevent that then the employer has to allow it. We also see people being denied promotions because of religion or being denied benefits. One thing that's particularly at issue these days is discrimination against Muslims.

Rob Wiley: Well, and of course, discrimination against Muslims is illegal, against people that are Jewish or any other minority religion, but what about discrimination against Christians? Is that also illegal under Title 7 and under the Texas Labor Code?

Colin Walsh: Yes, it would be illegal to discriminate against somebody because they are Christian. Again, the law doesn't make any distinction between what religions get to be discriminated against or not. You are prohibited from discriminating against any religion.

Rob Wiley: And I think religion is one of those things where it just has nothing to do with your job. So if there were ever a situation in which an employee was asked about his or her religion during a job interview, I would be very suspicious of that and would want to know why the person didn't get the job, and I think there'd be a strong presumption that if they were asked about their religion, then that had to be one of the reasons why they were denied a job. Similarly in the workplace, I know that sometimes people have a tendency to want to talk about their religions and things like that but religion shouldn't be a part of your workplace. It shouldn't be something that you have to talk about if you don't want to, and it certainly shouldn't be the basis for any kind of, of employment decision. So you may have a workplace that has people of lots of different faiths and backgrounds and yet everybody has to work together. From time to time, somebody might need a religious accommodation. Maybe it's days off, maybe it's an ability to wear certain items of religious clothing. Do employers have to accommodate that?

Colin Walsh: Yes. Employers do, under both the Civil Rights Act and under Texas Labor Code. You have to provide a reasonable accommodation for somebody's religion.

Rob Wiley: Now, when is it that an employer could say, that's just too much, you know, that's too hard on us. Is there some sort of legal test for when an employer doesn't have to provide an accommodation?

Colin Walsh: Yes, there is a legal test for when an accommodation does not have to be provided. And the test is whether it would cause an undue burden. Now, what's important to note about that, though, is something's not an undue burden just because it costs the employer money or it makes them have to provide something additional. An undue burden is actually something that's fairly substantial, and you have to show actual disruption, in order to really meet that requirement in most circumstances.

Rob Wiley: Obviously every case is different and depends on the facts, but I would think that an employer probably has to offer religious accommodation unless it's, for instance, like a health and safety issue, or something like that. If it's just an additional thing that the employer has to do, that's not going to be an undue burden. But we've seen examples of people wanting to wear religious clothing. We might see people that need to take holy days off or need to get Sunday or the Sabbath off. Those are certainly reasonable accommodations for religion and something that actually comes up a lot would be even like being able to bring a bible to work or something like that. Does an employee have that right?

Colin Walsh: Yes, absolutely. An employee can bring a bible to work.

Rob Wiley: Okay. So, another kind of question, obviously people who are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu, they're entitled to reasonable accommodation. What about people that are atheist, or that don't have a belief in a particular god? Do they get rights under the law as well?

Colin Walsh: Yes, they definitely do. The prohibition against religious discrimination also includes the right not to believe, not to have a religion. And to the extent they are treated differently or not provided an accommodation for that, that would be discrimination, it would be actionable. But one of the ways we will also see religious discrimination is, let's say there's a Christmas party, and the person is non-Christian. And they don't want to go. They will be reprimanded for not going to that party or not doing something like that. That would be religious discrimination.

Rob Wiley: Yes. Well, thank you, Colin.

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