Overview of Religious Discrimination Law

Both federal and Minnesota law prohibit employment discrimination on account of the religious beliefs of an applicant or employee. Employers should permit employees to practice their religious faith at work to the extent that it does not interfere with job requirements or the job performance of other employees. A number of employers provide space for employees to pray or study religious texts during break times or outside of working hours. Other employers permit exceptions to their dress code or grooming policy based on religion. However, unlike the disability discrimination laws that require employers to provide reasonable accommodation, federal and Minnesota statutes pertaining to the accommodation of religion have been interpreted to require accommodation only where the accommodation would create minimal hardship for the employer. For example, changing work shift schedules to permit an employee to observe his or her Sabbath is not required where such changes would disrupt the employer’s normal operations. Nor is an employer expected to permit proselytizing at work where other employees object to or are uncomfortable with such activity.

Minnesota Human Rights Act & Religious Discrimination

Both the federal Civil Rights Act Title VII and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibit religious discrimination in employment. The principal difference between the rights and obligations of employers and employees under these two laws is that Title VII also requires “reasonable accommodation” based upon religion, while the MHRA does not. Minnesota employers covered by Title VII are subject to both the non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation requirements of that law. Specifically, the MHRA states that:

In Minnesota, except when based on a bona fide occupational qualification, “it is an unfair employment practice for an employer, because of…creed, religion…to: (1) refuse to hire or to maintain a system of employment which unreasonable excludes a person seeking employmentl or (2) discharge an employer; or (3) discriminate against a person with respect to hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities, or privileges of employment.”

Title VII protects “religious observance and practice, as well as belief[s].” Political and social ideologies are not considered to be a “religion” under Title VII, although sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs that serve roles similar to conventional religions might be. Congress created a narrow exception to the prohibition against religious discrimination in employment under which religious organizations, associations, and religious educational institutions are permitted to require employees to be of a particular religion to perform work connected with their activities. This exception exempts religious organizations from the ban on employment discrimination based on religion; it does not exempt such organizations from the other prohibitions within Title VII, such as discrimination based on sex, race, or national origin.

The MHRA prohibits discrimination in employment based upon an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, but does not explicitly require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or observances. The MHRA prohibits an employer from discriminating in hiring, firing, promoting, granting benefits and compensation, or as to other privileges of employment, based on an employee’s religion. Further, the MHRA prohibits an employer from requesting that a prospective employee furnish information pertaining to religion. A “religious or fraternal” organization may, however, impose job qualifications based upon religion when religion is a bona fide occupational qualification. The Minnesota Supreme Court found that three “born again” Christians who owned several gyms in the Twin Cities violated the MHRA’s prohibition against religious discrimination because the owners inseparably merged their religious beliefs with their business practices by terminating employees because of a difference in reigious beliefs, refusing to promote employees because of differing religious beliefs and failing to provide “open” public accomodations.

One of the main issues with Title VII is the requirement that employers provide a reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs and practices. The leading case on this subject is Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, where the United States Supreme Court addressed an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s refusal to work on Saturday for religious reasons. The Court ruled that TWA had not violated Title VII because Title VII did not require an employer to deny employees’ contractual rights to accommodate the religious practices of other employees. To require TWA to compel a more senior employee to assume plaintiff-employee’s Saturday work obligations would give preference to employees with religious objections to working on a certain day over those who had a strong, but nonreligious, reason for not wanting to work on that particular day. Additionally, the Court noted that Title VII itself provides that the routine application of a bona fide seniority system does not constitute an unlawful employment practice.

In Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, the Supreme Court further construed Title VII’s requirement of reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs, holding that “an employer has met its obligation under [Title VII] when it demonstrates that it has offered a reasonable accommodation to the employee.” According to the Court, nothing in the statute requires an employer to choose any particular accommodation because the statute requires a reasonable accommodation, not the most reasonable accommodation.

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