Employees and applicants are protected from discrimination and harassment based on their religions, their religious beliefs or practices, and even their lack of religious beliefs. Title VII, the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination, applies to private employers with at least 15 employees. Similar state laws also prohibit discrimination and harassment and many apply to smaller employers.
Although sexual harassment is a commonly recognized form of harassment, employees may claim harassment based on any characteristic protected under Title VII, including race, disability, age, or religion. The rules for proving harassment are the same no matter what the protected characteristic. In some religious harassment cases, though, a religious employee might be accused of harassing others by proselytizing or otherwise spreading his or her faith. In these situations, employers have to walk a very fine line between accommodating one employee’s right to practice his or her religion and another employee’s right not to be harassed by it.
Generally speaking, harassment is unwelcome, offensive conduct that the victim must put up with in order to keep the job or is severe or pervasive enough to affect the terms and conditions of the victim’s employment. In religious harassment cases, victim employees allege that they were subjected to negative treatment because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
An employer or manager might condition a job benefit on an employee complying with religious requirements – or on an employee abandoning his or her own religious beliefs or practices. These cases are called “quid pro quo” harassment cases, in which the employee must put up with harassment in order to avoid discipline or get ahead at work. For example, an employer might require all employees to attend a particular religious service, refuse to promote employees who are religious, or prohibit employees from taking their Sabbath days off.
Religious harassment cases might also be based on a "hostile work environment” theory, in which the employee alleges that the workplace was permeated with negative comments and actions based on the employee’s religion. To succeed on a hostile work environment claim, the employee must show that the comments or behavior were so severe or pervasive that the average person would have found the workplace to be intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Generally, a single biased comment or religious joke won’t be enough to prove hostile work environment harassment. Instead, comments or actions must be severe or pervasive enough to alter the working environment. Although unusual, a single statement might amount to harassment if it is quite extreme. If, for example, an employee was subjected to verbal threats of physical assault for practicing Islam, that might be sufficient.
Less threatening actions or statements may still constitute harassment is they are repeated enough to create a hostile work environment. While one joke about an employee’s religious beliefs or garb might not add up to harassment, constant teasing and belittling likely would.
Usually, it’s clear that negative comments about an employee’s religion are not welcome. However, whether or not the conduct was welcome can sometimes be in dispute, especially if a friendly conversation goes too far. For example, an employee might willingly participate in a lunchtime conversation about why she is an atheist. But if her coworkers or manager kept referring to that conversation later in an unkind and persistent way, what started out as a welcome discussion might cross the line into unwelcome harassment.
For some employees, practicing their religions requires them to tell others about their faith and even try to convert others. This can become complicated in the workplace, where other employees might find this practice to be unwelcome and even hostile. An employee who is fulfilling the requirements of his or her own religious beliefs, in good faith, might also be harassing other employees on the basis of religion.
In these situations, it can be very difficult for employers to balance the rights of the religious employee with the rights of others who do not wish to engage in such conversations. Court decisions in this area are not entirely consistent. What is clear, however, is that an employee who simply wears a button or posts a sign proclaiming his or her religious beliefs is less likely to be guilty of harassment. On the other hand, an employee who doggedly tries to convert other employees at work, even after they have said they aren’t interested, is more likely to have crossed the line into harassing conduct. The more persistent and intense an employee is about professing his or her faith in the workplace, the more likely the employer will have to step in.
If you are facing harassment at work because of your religion, your first step should be simply to tell the harasser that you are uncomfortable and ask the harasser to stop. This is effective quite often; the harasser may not realize that his or her comments are unwelcome, especially if the conversations are about his or her own faith.
If you would prefer not to speak to the harasser yourself, or your conversation doesn’t have the desired effect, make a complaint within your company. This puts your employer on notice of the problem, allowing it an opportunity to step in and resolve the situation. From a legal perspective, notifying the company also allows you to hold the company liable for any continuing harassment by a fellow employee.
If you aren’t happy with the company’s response, or you feel uncomfortable proceeding on your own for any reason, talk to an experienced employment lawyer. If you are considering a lawsuit, you’ll need to file a charge of harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces federal antiharassment laws. You may also have to file with a similar state agency. If the EEOC or state agency doesn’t resolve the matter, you might want to sue. An experienced attorney can help you sort through your options, assess the strengths and weaknesses of your claim, and figure out the best way to move forward and assert your rights.