The quest for religious freedom was a driving force in the founding of America. It should come as no surprise then that state and federal laws provide solid protection for employees who have been the victims of religion discrimination. Religion in the workplace is a hot topic in the employment field today. This page was designed to help non-lawyers gain a little legal perspective on religion and discrimination in the workplace, and to decide if it might be necessary to talk to a religion discrimination lawyer.
The following topics are covered on this page:
- Religion Discrimination Basics
- Reasonable Accommodations
- Notable Case
- Exemptions for Religious Entities
- What Can I Get If I Win My Religion Discrimination Case?
- Standard Settlements in Discrimination Cases
- How Much Does a Discrimination Lawyer Cost?
- Statute of Limitations
- Consulting a Religion Discrimination Lawyer
It’s important to remember that while this website discusses certain legal topics, it’s not intended as a substitute for speaking directly with an employment attorney. If anything you read on this page makes you suspect you’ve been a victim of discrimination, contact our office immediately.
Religion Discrimination Basics
Multiple laws prohibit an employer from discriminating or harassing employees due to their religious affiliation. The pertinent national law is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. However, when fighting religion discrimination cases in California, attorneys typically rely on the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, FEHA Govt. Code. § 12940. State law is preferred because it doesn’t put a cap on damages. In addition, federal law only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, whereas FEHA applies to all employers with 5 or more employees.
In some cases, an employee’s religious beliefs come into conflict with a job’s requirements. Employers are required to reasonably accommodate employee’s religious preference. For instance, there are religions that prohibit working on the Sabbath as well as the handling of certain products. In some cases, a practitioner of a specific religion might be required to wear certain garments. So long as the employee does not request an accommodation that would cause an undue hardship on the employer, the employe is required to provide the employee with the accommodation.
Under certain circumstances, state law does allow an employer to fire an employee because of a conflict between the job and the worker’s religious practices. However, the law puts the burden on the employer to demonstrate that it has “explored any available reasonable, alternative means of accommodating the religious belief or observance, including the possibilities of excusing the person from those duties that conflict with his or her religious belief…or permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another person.” Govt. Code. § 12940(l)(1)
In the case of a person who cannot work on the Sabbath, the employer might agree not to schedule the employee on Sunday, but rather have them work on Saturday instead. In order to deny such accommodation, the employer must show that it would cause an undue hardship on the business.
Notable Case Example
In September 2004 the California Court of Appeal for the Second District heard the case of the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission v. Gemini Aluminum Corporation. The commission filed suit against Gemini Aluminum Corporation on behalf of a former Gemini employee named Lester Young, a Jehovah’s Witness.
Young had been employed with the company for approximately 15 months when he requested time off to attend a religious convention that he had attended regularly for several years. After his request was denied, Young decided to attend the convention anyway. When he returned, a supervisor told him he would be suspended for 10 days. After telling his supervisor he was going to the labor board, Young was fired.
The appeals court reversed a lower court’s decision in favor of Gemini Aluminum.
“The fact is that Young sought to attend a specific religious convention and Gemini made no attempt to accommodate him,” the court stated.
While the company had attempted to argue that attendance at the convention was not a “tenet” of Young’s religion, the court noted that state law requires employers to accommodate not just religious beliefs, but also religious observances.
Exemptions for Religious Entities
While FEHA religion discrimination laws apply to most employees in the state, they don’t apply to employees of non-profit religious institutions. For example, a Christian University is allowed to refuse to hire an employee of Muslim or Buddhist affiliation. However, religious institutions that run health care facilities open to the public are not allowed to discriminate against employees who do not perform religious duties.
What Can I Get if I Win My Religion Discrimination Case?
If you win your case, you are eligible to recover income you would have earned had there been no discrimination. For instance, if you made a salary of $85,000 per year, and were terminated because of your religious beliefs, you could be awarded $85,000 for every year you couldn’t find work.
In addition to lost wages, workers who win religion discrimination cases may be able to receive compensation for “pain and suffering.” This would include stress, depression, sleeplessness, nausea and other ailments caused by the discrimination. In some cases, the law provides for both past and future suffering.
The law also allows for the recovery of attorney’s fees. Because many religious discrimination claims have small lost income and pain and suffering damages, California created an attorney fee provision to incentivize lawyers to take these types of cases.
Finally, in some instances, religion discrimination cases result in punitive damage awards. However, these types of rewards are rare because the discrimination victim must prove that the employer acted with malice, fraud or oppression. Punitive damages are meant to deter corporations from engaging in such behavior ever again.
Settlements in a Religion Discrimination Case
Most employment cases, including religion discrimination cases, end up settling rather than going to trial. Because legal settlements are subject to confidentiality provisions, there’s little data from which to calculate average figures. However, in our experience, most discrimination cases settle for under six figures. It’s important to remember that every case is different and different juries or judges might come to different conclusions based on the same set of facts.
How Much Does a Religion Discrimination Lawyer Cost?
Religion discrimination lawyers accept cases on a contingency-fee basis. This means the attorney is only paid if the client is awarded damages by the judge or jury. Before taking the case, you and your lawyer will discuss the percentage that will come out of the money awarded. The client pays no out-of-pocket expenses.
Statute of Limitations
Typically, a person has a year from the date of termination to obtain a right-to-sue letter from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Once this letter is acquired, the attorney has one year to file a lawsuit in state or federal court. If you’ve already obtained this letter, it’s important you let your attorney know right away.
In the case of public employees, even shorter time frames may apply. In some cases, the deadline to file a lawsuit is six months. If you have questions about your case, contact our office for more information.
Consulting a Religion Discrimination Lawyer
Persons who have been the victims of religion discrimination are not required to retain counsel in order to file a lawsuit. However, the law is subtle, and complex. Filing fees and other errors can lead to a loss of your case, as well as the loss of substantial compensation. If you suspect you’ve been the victim of discriminatory practices by an employer, call our office for a free consultation. There is no obligation for consulting with our firm.