This week marked the beginning of Ramadan, which is the Islamic month of fasting. Participating Muslims generally refrain from eating and drinking during daylight hours. Ramadan is intended to teach Muslims about patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God.
It is also a good reminder for the need to understand restrictions against religious discrimination in the workplace – not only Islamic religion but all religions.
This is because Michigan employers are generally prohibited from discriminating in employment decisions and conditions on the basis of religion under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) and Title VII under federal law. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.; MCL 37.2202; See also 29 CFR 1605.1 et seq. for additional EEOC guidelines concerning religious discrimination.
Three Forms of Religious Discrimination
Claims of religious discrimination under Title VII are often framed under three general theories:
- Disparate treatment: An employee may may assert a disparate treatment theory where an employer treats an employee less favorably than other similarly situated employees because of the employee’s religious beliefs or practices. For example, in Campbell v. Avis Rent a Car Sys. (pdf) (E.D. Mich. 2006) a Muslim plaintiff contended that she was terminated because of her Muslim religion and not for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons because no non-Muslim employee had been terminated under similar circumstances;
- Hostile Work Environment: Under this theory, an employee may claim that the employer subjected the employee to a hostile work environment that may take the form of pervasive religious slurs or insults. An example of this type of discrimination occurred in EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., (4th Cir. 2008) where the plaintiff suffered severe and pervasive religious discrimination when several co-workers, including one supervisor, repeatedly called him “Taliban” and “towel head,” questioned his allegiance to the United States, mocked his kufi and beard and observance of prayers, and made several anti-Muslim comments in the plaintiff’s presence; and
- Failure to Accommodate: An employee may claim that an employment requirement, although evenhandedly implemented by the employer, conflicts with the person’s religious practices. Enforcement of such a requirement against the employee constitutes a violation of Title VII unless the employer demonstrates that it is unable to accommodate the employee’s religious practices without undue hardship. This type of claim was seen in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (2011) where the employer was found to have discriminated against a job applicant for its retail store because she wore a Muslim head scarf. The employer unsuccessfully argued that the scarf violated its employee “look policy” and, therefore, was an undue hardship.
The Take Away
While the preceding examples of religious discrimination involve Muslim religious practices and beliefs, it is important to realize that religious discrimination may involve any belief that constitute a “religion.” For example, see the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog’s discussion on a claim involving a Taco Bell employee and practicing Nazarite’s refusal to cut his hair in accordance with his Biblical views. Further, Title VII broadly defines the term “religion” as “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.” But defining what is a “religion” or what religious accommodation may or may not be appropriate is best addressed in collaboration with a competent employment attorney.
For further information on Muslim religious practices, the Council on American-Islamic Relations provides employers with this overview of Muslim Religious practices (PDF).