When Does Religious Expression Become Religious Harassment

November 10, 1999
While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits religious expression by employees, supervisors and managers, it prohibits religious harassment. Harassment because of religion may not be as frequent as sexual, racial or ethnic harassment, but it is still unlawful. Although religious harassment can take many forms, two broad categories of religious harassment are (1) coercing employee participation or non-participation in religious activities, and (2) hostile work environment. Below are explanations and examples from the EEOC regarding these two categories of religious harassment.


Coercing religious participation or non-participation

A supervisor or manager may not explicitly or implicitly insist that an employee participate in religious activities or hold particular religious views as a condition of continued employment, promotion, preferred job assignments, or any other benefit or privilege of employment. Nor may a supervisor insist that an employee not participate in religious activities outside the workplace or not hold particular religious views. Such conduct would constitute religious harassment in violation of Title VII.

On the other hand, supervisors may engage in religious discourse or expression that cannot reasonably be perceived by employees to be coercive. Even if coercion is not intended, supervisors need to be careful that their statements and actions cannot reasonably be perceived to be coercive.

  • Example: During a conversation about weekend activities, Supervisor Bob tells one of his employees that he very much enjoyed Saturday morning synagogue services, that religion is an important part of his life, and that he is planning to invite the employee to his daughter's upcoming bat mitzvah. Without more, Bob's statements could not reasonably be perceived to be coercive and would not violate Title VII.
  • Example: Supervisor Jane, who is a born-again Christian, tells an employee who is not a born-again Christian that she considers the office to be "a place of God," and that if the employee is unwilling to shape up and "play by God's rules" the employee will be replaced. These statements are explicitly coercive and would constitute religious harassment, according to the EEOC.
  • Example: Upon her arrival at Creative Corporation, a co-worker tells Sharon that the boss favors employees who belong to his religious sect. Over the next year, Sharon observes that promotions, raises and preferred assignments are given only to employees in the boss' religious sect. When Sharon is denied a raise, despite her eligibility and excellent performance, she files a charge alleging religious discrimination. On these facts, the EEOC would likely find this course of conduct to be implicitly coercive and thus, in violation of Title VII.


Hostile environment harassment

Title VII also protects employees from a religiously hostile work environment, whether created by a supervisor or co-workers. As in cases of sexual or racial harassment, whether a particular employee's work environment is "hostile" for purposes of religious discrimination depends on the totality of the circumstances. This includes the frequency and severity of the harassing conduct, whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's work performance. The key question is whether, on balance, the harassing conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment, when judged both objectively (using a reasonable person's standard) and subjectively (from the actual perspective of the affected individual).

Repeated use of religiously derogatory language can constitute hostile environment religious harassment. A single incident, if sufficiently severe, could also constitute harassment. Also relevant to whether there is a hostile environment is whether those who engage in the harassing conduct are co-workers or supervisors, whether the employer knew or should have known of the harassing conduct, and the actions, if any, the employer took to prevent or stop the conduct. An employer that takes prompt and effective action to stop religiously harassing conduct may avoid liability for that conduct.

  • Example: During the course of an argument in the office, one employee makes a derogatory comment about the other's religion. Subsequently, no more is said. One isolated utterance, generally, will not constitute religious harassment, unless the utterance was so severe as to alter the conditions of the insulted employee's employment.
  • Example: A group of employees engage in a pattern of verbal attacks on another employee, ridiculing his Shinto religion. The employees openly and repeatedly refer to their co-worker as a "Godless pagan" and "the heathen," including at staff meetings and in front of their supervisors. After the supervisors fail to stop the attacks, the employee files a charge with the EEOC. This pattern of conduct is sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the co-worker's working conditions and constitutes religious harassment, according to the EEOC.


SOURCE: "Religious Discrimination; Employment Discrimination Prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended" by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Technical Assistance Program. May 1999. (Revised).

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The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.