Both New Jersey and federal laws prohibit an employer, other than a religious institution, from discriminating against any current or potential employee on the basis of that employee’s creed, religious beliefs or practices, or lack thereof. In the workplace, issues sometimes come up about exactly what protections the laws give to employees and what obligations employers have under the statutes.
1. Employers Generally May Not Require that Employees Be Religious
An employer, other than a religious institution, cannot discriminate against someone because of his or her religious beliefs in hiring, promotions, wages, termination, or layoffs. It also may not require that employees be of a particular religion (or be religious at all) and cannot include statements of religious preference or limitations in job notices or advertisements, unless religion is a “bona fide occupational qualification” for the job.
Example: Requiring a chaplain at a secular hospital to be religious would be appropriate; requiring that all employees of the hospital be Christian would not.
2. Employers Are Required to Make Reasonable Accommodations
Employers are required by law to make reasonable accommodations for an employee's religious beliefs and practices in the workplace, so long as accommodation does not place an undue hardship on the employer. Covered practices may include wearing religious garb or accessories, having religious tattoos or adornments, having a certain manner of dress or hairstyle, keeping to certain dietary restrictions, or refraining from or engaging in specified conduct. Some religions also restrict the hours an individual is allowed to work.
Example: A female office receptionist is a devout Muslim and requests to wear her hijab (a scarf that covers her head and neck) along with her company-issued uniform. Ordinarily, employees are not permitted to wear head coverings or other non-uniform items, but it is unlikely that allowing it would be an “undue hardship.” Her request should most likely be approved.
3. Making Reasonable Accommodations Doesn’t Always Mean Agreeing to Specific Requests
It is an employee’s responsibility to request accommodations; the employer’s obligation is to try in good faith to accommodate the employee’s religious needs, although this does not have to be in the employee’s preferred or requested manner.
Example: A second-shift worker in a factory converts to Judaism, and her religious beliefs now prevent her from working after sundown on Fridays and all day Saturday. The normal second-shift schedule is Monday-Friday, 3 p.m.-11 p.m. She notifies her employer of her religious prohibitions and requests that she be allowed to work Sunday-Thursday from 3 p.m-11 p.m. (remaining on the same shift but substituting a different day). Her employer denies her request but offers her Monday-Thursday shifts from 1 p.m.-11 p.m. (four 10-hour days rather than five 8-hour days). Her employer has complied with its obligations to reasonably accommodate her request.
4. Employers Do Not Have to Accommodate if It Causes “Undue Hardship”
A requested accommodation causes an “undue hardship” under the law if accommodating it requires anything more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees' job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee's share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation.
Example: An emergency room nurse’s religious beliefs prevent her from administering blood transfusions. Accommodating her request to not perform this procedure, which is routinely necessary many times per shift in the course of her job duties, would require substantial additional burden on her coworkers and diminish their efficiency. A hospital would not have to make the requested accommodation because it would likely be an “undue hardship.”
5. Employers May Not Treat Employees Differently Based on Religion
Employers may not treat employees more or less favorably because of their religion or require employees to participate or to refrain from participating in a religious activity as a condition of employment. If an employer agrees to a requested religious accommodation, it should ensure that it does not unintentionally grant that employee a benefit other employees do not have.
Example: A company run by a Catholic family wishes to give its employees the day off on the Friday before Easter for religious reasons. It is not allowable to give only Catholics the day off without ensuring that the non-Catholic employees are equivalently compensated. It is allowable to give everyone the day off or to allow all employees to take a “floating holiday” for use on a different day.
6. Employers May Not Require Employees to Participate in Religious Activities
A private employer may choose to include religion in the workplace, but cannot require employees to participate in religious activities or take adverse employment action against them if they do not participate.
Example: The CEO of a pharmaceutical company begins each staff meeting with a prayer, which takes 1-2 minutes. He routinely asks others to take turns leading the group in prayer at these meetings. This participation must be voluntary, i.e., there may not be a penalty or negative consequence if someone chooses not to participate in or be present for the prayer.
Protections against religious discrimination are meant to ensure that everyone is allowed to practice their religion, or choose not to practice any religion, without suffering negative consequences at work.
If you believe you’ve been the victim of religious discrimination in the workplace, you should talk to an attorney experienced in federal and New Jersey religious discrimination laws. The Mark Law Firm’s experienced attorneys can help you determine whether you may have a claim for religious discrimination or other employment law violations, and if so, help you decide which venue would be best for you to pursue an action.
To schedule an appointment at the Basking Ridge, Oradell, or Newark, New Jersey, law offices of the Mark Law Firm, contact the firm online or call 973-440-2311, 908-626-1001, or 201-787-9406 today.