Are only members of mainstream religions protected from discrimination?

Question: I am a member of a small church outside of town. We live together on an old farm, rising early in the morning for prayer and chores and gathering in the evening for prayer and Bible study. Some of us were formerly affiliated with the local Protestant church, but we found that we believed in a more rigorous integration of our religious beliefs with our daily lives. Our founder leads us in interpreting the Bible and living in accordance with its teachings. I have worked for several years at a hardware store in town, but the store owner fired me last week, after learning about my church affiliation. He said I belong to a "cult" and that he wouldn't support us by paying me wages any longer. Can he fire me just because my religious beliefs are not traditional?

Answer: If you are protected from discrimination based on your religion, then you may not be fired for your religious beliefs, whether those beliefs are mainstream or not. Whether a belief is religious is not determined by how many people hold it. Instead, it is determined by the nature of the belief.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination based on religion, among other things. This federal law applies to private employers with at least 15 employees. If your employer is smaller, your state or local discrimination laws might protect you; some apply to employers with fewer employees. (To find out more about your state's law, select it from the list at Nolo's page  Your Rights Against Workplace Discrimination and Harassment.)

If you are protected by federal, state, or local law, your employer may not make job decisions based on your religious beliefs. This means, for example, that you may not be demoted because you are Jewish, fired because you are a Muslim, or harassed because you are Catholic.

But these laws don't protect only those who are members of large, established religions. Organized religions are protected, but so are new religious groups, small groups, and even groups others would deem a cult, sect, or fringe organization. As long as your beliefs are "religious," rather than, for example, political, artistic, or a matter of personal preference, you are protected.

So what makes a belief religious in nature? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces Title VII, has said that religious beliefs concern "ultimate" matters, such as life, death, and the purpose of existence. They are sincere ethical, moral beliefs about right and wrong, held with the same strength as traditional religious convictions.

Not all sincere, strongly held moral views are religious though. For example, a vegetarian may believe passionately that eating animals is immoral and unethical, or unhealthy. However, without some notion of a divine command or higher purpose to eschew meat, this would not be a religious belief.

As you can see, there are some grey areas in these definitions, owing partly to the difficulty of defining precisely what religion and religious belief are and what makes them different from strongly held personal beliefs. In your situation, however, no such grey areas seem to exist. Although you are not a member of a large organized religion, your religious beliefs involve prayer and interpretation of the Bible. Certainly, others may not agree with your views. But it would be difficult to argue that they are not religious in nature. If you are unable to convince the store owner to take you back, visit your local EEOC or state fair employment practices agency and speak to them about filing a discrimination charge.

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