Supreme Court to address exercise of religion in the workplace

Written by William C. Duncan

April 7, 2022

One of the most significant religious freedom cases the U.S. Supreme Court is considering this year involves a football coach who says he was pushed from his job because his employer did not like his religious practice – praying on the field after football games. The Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in that case later this month.

Since the employer in this case is a public school, different legal standards apply than would in a case where an employee was fired by a private employer for religious reasons. But the question of religious discrimination in employment is a pressing one for a few thousand people every year.

A recent study from researchers at Rice University, the University of Texas Health Science Center and Wheaton College noted:

Between fiscal year (FY) 1992 (the first year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began reporting such data) and FY 2020, charges of religion-based discrimination in the workplace filed with the EEOC increased by 73 percent (from 1,388 cases to 2,404). This growth dwarfs the changes in other sources of discrimination in the same time frame, such as sex (1.8 percent decrease), race (25 percent decrease), and national origin (14 percent decrease).

Although these cases make up only a small percentage of total discrimination claims, the study aims to provide more understanding of the nature of employees’ experiences with workplace bias.

The study included a large national sample reporting on experiences of workplace discrimination and a series of interviews with 194 people including Muslims, Jews and Christians.

From the interviews, the researchers identified four major forms of religious discrimination:

  • The authors noted: “By far the most common form of religious discrimination described by interview respondents were verbal microaggressions, including experiences of name-calling, mocking, ridicule, and uncomfortable ‘joking,’ which could also be accompanied by other forms of harassment or a sense of being judged or stereotyped by others.”
  • Another similar type of discrimination was social exclusion. This was felt not only by religious employees but by nonreligious employees as well who reported feeling that coworkers viewed them with suspicion.
  • Another source of concern was “tied to observing religious holidays or visible displays of religious symbols in the workplace, including religious attire. Jewish and Muslim respondents, in particular, described struggles around issues of accommodation and wearing of religious attire in the workplace.” Tragically, some Muslims and Jews even felt their physical safety was threatened if they were closely identified with their faith because of religious clothing they wore.
  • A commonly expressed concern specific to Evangelical Christians were “descriptions of taking a moral stand in the workplace against perceived unethical behaviors because of their faith, which resulted in being censured for having ‘integrity.’”

Interestingly, many, if not most, of the descriptions would likely not rise to the level of unlawful discrimination. That requires a finding that a potential employee was not hired or that an employee was fired because of their faith, or that the employer tolerated a hostile work environment based on faith, or that the employer failed to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice.

These results do, however, suggest how toxic slights and mistreatment can be for those of faith or who don’t practice any faith. Perhaps the law cannot (or should not attempt to) redress all of these concerns. But surely religious groups, employers, and others can (and do) promote pluralistic acceptance and accommodation of differences and increased understanding of the beliefs and opinions of others in a way that fosters a welcoming environment in the workplace.

Connect with Sutherland Institute

Join Our Donor Network