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Can I Sue My Employer for Religious Discrimination?

Religious discrimination in the workplace is illegal and prohibited. You can sue your employer for religious discrimination.

How religious discrimination is manifested, however, can be subject to several interpretations. It is important to consult with a religious discrimination employment lawyer immediately to know whether the actions your employer has committed rise to the level of religious discrimination. Most religious discrimination lawyers will accept a strong case on a contingency basis – which means you don’t have to pay lawyer fees until you are able to get a favorable settlement from your employer or a favorable judgment from the court.

What is religious discrimination?

Religious discrimination occurs when you have been treated differently by your employer due to your religion in terms of hiring, firing, promotion, assignments, distribution of benefits, compensation, discipline, or any other condition of employment. The law does not only protect against discrimination against organized religions such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, but also includes discrimination against sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs, including atheism. What is considered a “sincerely held” belief, however, is also subject to interpretation.

In New York, religious discrimination is covered by federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). New York lawyers, however, will generally recommend the filing of a case under state or local law due to the broader protections offered by NYSHRL and NYCHRL.

Forms of religious discrimination

The most common forms of religious discrimination involve targeted religious discrimination, neutral policies with discriminatory effects, harassment, and failure to provide reasonable accommodation.

Targeted religious discrimination occurs when you have been specifically subjected to discrimination because of your religious beliefs. For example, your employer refuses to promote you just because you do not work during Sabbath day, despite your exemplary performance, and instead promotes someone with lesser experience and with a lesser satisfactory rating in performance evaluation.

An example of a neutral policy with a discriminatory effect is a policy that prohibits the hiring of employees with head coverings. Although this is a policy that appears to be neutral with regard to all persons, the policy, when applied, prohibits the hiring of strictly religious Muslim men and women who require their heads to be covered with a hijab or turban. On the other hand, a policy that requires employees to be clean-shaven with reasonable haircuts is not religiously discriminatory even if it prohibits the employment of Orthodox Muslims who wear beards, for as long as the policy is not motivated by a religious connotation. Matter of Greyhound v. Div. of Human Rights, 27 N.Y.2d 279 (1970).

Another form of religious discrimination is harassment. Harassment is not limited to being committed by your supervisor or manager. Harassment can be committed by your co-workers. The company can be held liable for damages arising from religious discrimination if you raise the issue of harassment to the management in accordance with the company’s grievance procedure, and the company refused to do anything about it. For example, if your co-worker kept on calling you a “Jewish fag” and you reported this to your company, and instead of doing something about it, your company did nothing to investigate, or worse, reprimanded you, your company can be held liable for damages arising from religious discrimination. Logan v. Salvation Army, 10 Misc.3d 756 (2005). Under federal law, harassment has to create a hostile work environment. However, in New York, the company can be held liable if the harassment is more than petty slight, or trivial.

Failure to provide reasonable accommodation occurs when your employer does not provide you with a means to perform your work in a reasonable manner in alignment with your religious beliefs. For example, reasonable accommodations would include an employee with a different belief requesting to be excluded from participating in group prayers during the religious part of the meeting or providing an exception for the headscarf covering policy for Muslims. The employer, however, does not have to provide reasonable accommodations if it would cause undue hardship. Undue hardship depends on the cost of the reasonable accommodation, the employer’s size, financial capability, and business needs.

For example, if you requested to rest on your Sabbath day and your employer compelled you to work because there was no one else who could work on that shift, there may be no religious discrimination if your employer could prove that giving you that day off would cause undue hardship to the employer, especially since making you work on that particular day is an isolated incident.

Exception to religious discrimination laws

Religious discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations and educational institutions that have policies preferring members of their own religion to work for them. For example, a Catholic organization, such as the church, may refuse to hire Muslims and prefer to hire Catholics as employees.

This exception, however, does not grant the religious organization blanket authority to engage in discriminatory practices. These organizations are still prohibited from discriminating based on age, gender, gender orientation, race, national origin, and other similar protected classes.

Filing a religious discrimination suit

In New York, you have four options in filing a religious discrimination suit:

  • File based on federal law with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC);
  • File based on New York State Human Rights Law with the New York State Division on Human Rights (NYSDHR); or
  • File based on New York City Human Rights Law with the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR); or
  • File directly with state courts.

There is a work-share arrangement between these agencies, so a claim filed with the EEOC can be considered cross-filed or dual filed with the NYSDHR and/or NYCCHR. The period to file a charge of religious discrimination with the EEOC is 300 days from the date of the discriminatory act. If you choose to exclusively file your claim with the NYSDHR or NYCCHR instead, the period to file the claim is one year from the date of the discriminatory act. If you file with state courts, you have three years from the date of discriminatory act. Filing with the NYSDHR or NYCCHR precludes you from directly filing with the state courts because the appeal process of the NYSDHR and NYCCHR includes judicial review with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court after the Appeal Board.

Your religious discrimination lawyer will advise you on the best venue to file your claim, depending on the time that has lapsed from the date of the discriminatory act, the location of your employer, and your causes of action.

Most New York lawyers will advise you to file your claims under state law because of the broader protections provided by New York law.

The EEOC only covers employers with at least fifteen (15) employees, while the new amendments to New York human rights laws cover all employers and eliminate the minimum coverage requirement of an employer to have at least 4 employees.

In addition, New York laws not only cover employees but also domestic workers, independent contractors, consultants, vendors, subcontractors, and persons providing services pursuant to a contract, where the employer knew or should have known the discrimination was happening.

Evidence to support your claims

Religious discrimination requires legal strategy in proving your case.

You can present direct, indirect, or corroborating evidence of targeted religious discriminatory practices. You can also present a pattern of religious discriminatory practices. For example, you can show that Muslims have not been consistently promoted in the company, despite being qualified.

You should also show that you raised the issue of religious discrimination with your employer, and your employer failed to do something about it. It is recommended that you raise the issue with your company through written documentation. If you verbally raise any issue of religious discrimination with your supervisor, follow it up with an email or a written letter.

When you have been subjected to discriminatory acts, it is a good practice to describe what you experienced to a friend or a family member through email. This will include a date and time stamp, which would show that the email you sent was spontaneous and an accurate description of what happened since it was written while the memory was still fresh in your mind.

You can also gather evidence from witnesses who saw the discriminatory act. The evidence in your case will determine the strength of your claims.

Damages for religious discrimination

When you sue your employer for discrimination, you can ask for back pay, front pay, reinstatement, compensatory damages, punitive damages, liquidated damages, attorneys’ fees, and other court fees and legal costs.

Back pay refers to your wages, benefits, and bonuses that you would have earned without the discrimination.

Front pay refers to lost compensation that you could have received from the time of judgment until reinstatement.

Reinstatement refers to an order by the court directing your employer to re-hire you back to work if you were fired.

Compensatory damages are designed to compensate you for out-of-pocket expenses such as lost wages, the cost of finding a new job, emotional pain, and distress.

Punitive damages are meant to punish the employer for their gross negligence, recklessness or conscious disregard of your rights. This may be awarded when you first notify your employer of the discriminatory conduct, and the employer does nothing about it. This would reflect your employer’s gross negligence or conscious disregard of your discriminatory complaint.

Liquidated damages are usually granted in lieu of the other damages and range up to double the amount of back pay.

If you are successful in your discrimination complaint, attorney’s fees, court fees, and other legal costs are awarded in your favor, in contrast to the American rule that every party pays for their own attorney’s fees, regardless of who wins. Previously, attorney’s fees and punitive damages were not available under New York human rights law. However, with the new amendments, you may now recover attorney’s fees and punitive damages on a case-to-case basis.

Why it is better to file a religious discrimination claim under New York law

The new amendments to the New York State Human Rights Law provides a more liberal construction than federal law on analyzing standards of discrimination.

For example, under federal law, you have to prove that the employer subjected you to a hostile work environment that is so severe or pervasive that it altered your terms and conditions of employment. Under New York state law, harassment does not need to be “severe or pervasive” anymore. Instead, employers cannot be held liable if the discriminatory conduct is more than petty or trivial. Thus, the standards are lower under state law to prove harassment.

In addition, under federal law, an employer can raise the affirmative defense that the employee failed to use the internal complaint procedure to report a harassment claim. Under state law, this defense is not available.

Moreover, there is a $300,000 limit for compensatory and punitive damages under federal law. Under New York State and city laws, there is no limit.

Because of the more favorable conditions provided for an employee under New York state law, it is recommended to file your racial discrimination claims under New York law rather than federal law.

Suing your employer for religious discrimination involves a complex process of proving certain elements in your case. You need to consult with a religious discrimination lawyer to ensure that your complaint is adequately supported with evidence and that you will be well represented in negotiations with your employer, and ultimately, with the applicable administrative agency or court. Should you need assistance, we at the Law Offices of Albert Goodwin are here for you. We have offices in New York, NY, Brooklyn, NY and Queens, NY. You can call us at 718-509-9774 or send us an email at attorneyalbertgoodwin@gmail.com.