The right to freely express one’s religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American values. Despite the clear separation between church and state, the government has put in place safeguards to protect employees who face discrimination and harassment in the workplace on religious grounds.
Over time, society has evolved, but unfortunately, the scourge of religious discrimination by employers has not been entirely eradicated from the American workplace. Learning that many clients continue to endure religious discrimination professionally is disheartening. However, there is a silver lining in this cloud. Seasoned legal professionals with expertise in this area can aid aggrieved employees, assisting them in seeking compensation for the distress caused by workplace religious discrimination.
Wrongful termination, as the term implies, refers to the unjust dismissal of an employee for reasons unrelated to their job performance or duties. In numerous instances, wrongful termination stems from harassment or discrimination experienced in the office.
Federal laws have been enacted to make it unequivocally illegal to terminate an employee based on discriminatory factors. Furthermore, many state laws have been implemented to shield employees from wrongful termination rooted in discrimination.
It’s important to note that nearly all 50 states in the United States adhere to the at-will employment doctrine. This doctrine stipulates that an employer can terminate an employee at any time and for any lawful reason without legal repercussions.
However, it’s crucial to emphasize that terminating an employee solely based on religious discrimination is an exception to the at-will doctrine and is not legally protected.
What Is Religious Discrimination?
Religious discrimination manifests in various ways. Suppose you’ve encountered situations where you were denied employment or a promotion, subjected to harassment, or denied reasonable accommodation at work due to your religious beliefs, practices, or even the absence of specific religious beliefs. In that case, you may have grounds for a legal claim.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) explicitly forbid many employers from engaging in religious discrimination within the workplace. This prohibition extends to treating employees differently because of their lack of religious belief or practice.
The law safeguards those who adhere to traditional organized religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or other faiths and individuals with sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral convictions. If you’ve faced rejection in employment, termination, harassment, or any other form of harm due to your religion, religious beliefs, and practices, or your accommodation request based on your beliefs and practices. In that case, you may have suffered unlawful religious discrimination.
It’s worth noting that some individuals subjected to religious discrimination may also experience other types of illegal discrimination, including discrimination based on national origin, immigration or citizenship status, and race. Generally, religious discrimination in the workplace can take three primary forms:
1. Employment Decisions Based on Religious Preference:
This encompasses employment decisions influenced by an individual’s faith or lack thereof. Examples include refusing to hire someone because they observe a Saturday Sabbath (e.g., a Seventh-Day Adventist or Orthodox Jew), terminating an employee for taking time off to observe a religious holiday, promoting an employee contingent upon their regular church attendance, transferring an employee to a less public-facing role because of their Rastafarian beliefs and dreadlocks, or withholding a raise until an employee refrains from discussing religious beliefs during breaks or lunch.
Harassment on religious grounds can involve mocking or admonishing employees for violating dress codes due to religious attire like yarmulkes, turbans, or hijabs. It might also entail repetitive mockery of a person’s strong Christian beliefs, ridiculing a Muslim employee for dietary preferences at company events, or persistently attempting to convert an atheist colleague.
3. Failure to Accommodate:
Denying religious accommodation represents the most common form of workplace religious discrimination. This includes compelling an employee to work on their Sunday Sabbath when alternatives exist, requiring an employee to remove religious clothing like a hijab to conform to dress code policies while allowing other employees to wear baseball caps, or prohibiting the display of religious icons or expressions of faith in workspaces while permitting other personal items.
Building Your Case for Wrongful Termination
If you believe that your termination from employment was unjust and driven by religious discrimination, it’s essential to substantiate your claim. The initial step involves collecting compelling evidence supporting your case. To assist you in navigating this process, consider following these steps and consult with wrongful termination attorneys who can guide your actions.
● Inquire About the Reason for Your Termination:
Approach your former employer calmly and request a detailed explanation for your termination. If possible, ask for a written termination notice, or at least take meticulous notes of your conversation.
● Request Access to Your Personnel File:
Seek access to your complete personnel file and create copies of all relevant documents. It’s important to note that employers are not legally obligated to provide your file voluntarily, so you may need to enlist a lawyer’s assistance in obtaining it through a subpoena after initiating your lawsuit.
● Maintain a Detailed Journal:
Record all pertinent details regarding your termination as promptly as possible to prevent the loss of critical information. Include the following in your journal:
- Any positive experiences leading up to your termination, along with dates and names where applicable.
- Instances of other employees with performance levels similar to yours who were not terminated.
- Contact information for co-workers who could serve as witnesses in your forthcoming case.
● Evaluate the Legality of Your Termination:
If your legal counsel concludes that your termination resulted from discrimination, take the necessary steps to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Retain copies of your EEOC application and all correspondence received from them. Of particular significance is the “right to sue” letter you may receive.
● Examine Policies for At-Will Employment:
Every state has its own set of employment policies and regulations, so it’s imperative to familiarize yourself with the laws applicable in your jurisdiction. Additionally, secure copies of your company’s employment termination policy for reference to build your case.
● Pursue Alternative Employment:
While actively seeking new employment while pursuing your claims is not a legal requirement, doing so can be advantageous. Job hunting serves two key purposes: you may discover a fulfilling job opportunity, and actively seeking employment demonstrates your strong work ethic and commitment to work. Juries and judges may favor this action when determining your eligibility for lost wages.
While it’s a fact that navigating religious discrimination laws can be complex, it’s crucial to understand that enduring discrimination in silence is not your only option. It’s important to recognize that you possess certain rights and safeguards under the law, and you should not have to tolerate a hostile or uncomfortable work environment.
If you’ve found yourself in a situation where you’ve been terminated from your job or denied employment due to religious discrimination, don’t lose hope. Reach out to The Bourassa Law Group to assess the viability of your case while also searching for new employment opportunities and moving forward with your life.
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