In December 2013, the owners of a KFC franchise in North Carolina agreed to pay $40,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit. A month earlier, UPS Inc. agreed to pay $70,000 to settle a similar religious discrimination lawsuit with an employee at its New Jersey shipping facility.
Both claims, brought by employees who were denied accommodations for their religious beliefs, are a part of a larger trend of rising religious discrimination claims in the United States. In fiscal 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 3,721 religious discrimination claims — 430 shy of the record 4,151 received in 2011. Since 2008, the EEOC has received at least 3,200 religious discrimination claims each fiscal year. Before 2008 the agency had never received more than 2,880 such claims in a single fiscal year.
“I think one of the reasons why there has been an increase in claims is because employees have become more comfortable with asking for accommodations in the workplace than they were a few years ago,” said Jill Vorobiev, a labor and employment lawyer with Dykema Gossett in Chicago. “Another reason could be because there’s probably a lack of awareness among employers about the types of policies they are trying to enforce without recognizing the potential need for accommodation.”
There are generally three categories of religious discrimination in the workplace, said Charlie Plumb, a shareholder at law firm McAfee & Taft in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The first category is making employment decisions based upon someone’s faith or lack thereof, the second is harassing individuals because of their religion, and the third category is failing to reasonably accommodate employees’ faith-based needs as long as there is no undue hardship placed on the employer.
Instances involving the denial of religious accommodation are the most common form of religious discrimination, legal experts said.
“Religious discrimination claims involving accommodation are not centered on any particular group or industry, with the exception of retail and service because of clothing or appearance,” Plumb said.
Sometimes the appearance or dress requirements of certain religions clash with a business’ uniform requirements.
In the KFC lawsuit, Sheila Silver, a longtime employee who had converted to Pentecostalism, was denied her request to wear a long dress instead of the uniform-required pants, which violates the Pentecostal code of modest dress for women. However, because Silver’s request would not have constituted an undue hardship for the KFC franchise to accommodate, Silver was found to be within her rights to file a discrimination claim against her employer.
“Employers must accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief when such an accommodation would not pose an undue hardship,” said Lynette Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte, North Carolina, district office, in a news release on the KFC lawsuit meant to demonstrate the agency’s determination to enforce anti-religious discrimination laws.
Religious Neutrality: The Next Claims Trend?
Another reason for the rise in religious discrimination claims could in part be explained by an increasingly diverse United States society, combined with individuals being more aware of their rights, and a greater overall confidence in asserting them, according to Plumb.
Evidence to support this theory can be seen in Oklahoma City, where a petition was approved to have a monument of the Ten Commandments placed on the state capital grounds. Appealing to the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, a satanic group recently petitioned to have its own monument on the grounds as well. A Hindu group and an atheist group have also filed petitions to have monuments of their respective icons placed on the grounds, too. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma for approving the Ten Commandments monument.
While this battle for religious representation on Oklahoma state government property isn’t taking place in an office, it serves as a reminder of the importance of religious neutrality in the workplace, said Plumb, who believes such issues will be the next trend in religious discrimination claims.
One way for employers to ensure religious neutrality at work is to practice religious accommodation. For instance, employers should provide flexibility to employees who would like to switch shifts to observe their religion’s day of worship, Vorobiev said. And if an employer decides to allow a group of employees to hold Bible studies during their lunch hour, it would be wise to allow another group of believers or nonreligious employees to hold their own sessions.
“Employers should treat everyone the same way, in what they will and won’t allow,” Vorobiev said. “The policy should be applicable to everyone and consistent for religious employees and nonreligious employees.”
Ultimately, though, Plumb said the best thing for employers to do is explain they respect all belief systems, but theological study and debate should be done outside of work.