What Is Legally Considered Religious Harassment in the Workplace?

Harassing someone due to her religion is illegal.

Harassing someone due to her religion is illegal.

Employers have a responsibility to provide a harassment-free work environment, and comments about religion can easily slip over the line. An employer is legally responsible whether the behavior comes from a supervisor, a co-worker or even an outsider, such as a client or vendor. If you believe you are a victim of religious harassment, contact your company’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office. If there is none, you can file a complaint at the nearest office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You must file within 180 days of the occurrence and you are protected, by law, against retaliation for filing a harassment complaint.

Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to organizations with 15 or more employees, prohibits employers from harassing an employee based on her “sincerely held religious belief” or lack or religious beliefs. In addition, an employer may not segregate an employee due to her religion or religious garb. For example, a hospital could not limit a nurse who wears a hijab to working in a lab in order to keep her away from patients who might be offended by her headdress. It is also unlawful to treat someone differently because of her spouse’s religion or because she associates with someone of a particular faith tradition.

Definition of Religion

Back in 1964, the meaning of “religion” seemed obvious, so legislators didn’t include a definition of religion in Title VII. But since then, the line between social and religious traditions has become blurred. The EEOC has since clarified that moral or ethical beliefs “held with the strength of traditional religious views” also qualify as religion. U.S. courts have upheld this position. So, for example, a vegan’s rights would be protected under Title VII even though veganism is not a religion in the traditional sense.

Hostility

Simple teasing isn’t necessarily harassment, nor is a discussion about religious or moral beliefs, even if it becomes animated. If such remarks become frequent or severe, however, they could create a hostile work environment. Regardless of frequency or intent, if an employee expresses displeasure with remarks about her beliefs or treatment she receives due to those beliefs, the behaviors must stop. A requirement for an employee to abandon a religious practice also qualifies as harassment.

Proselytizing

Expressing one’s religious views is not harassment, but when a person preaches to others in an attempt to convert them, she risks crossing the line into the realm of harassment behaviors. When a supervisor engages in this behavior, it’s even more risky because subordinates may perceive that they are being pressured into conversion. Ironically, atheists also can be guilty of proselytizing, if they forcefully reiterate their views and imply that others are misguided for believing otherwise.

 

About the Author

A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.

Photo Credits

  • Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images