Religion in the Workplace: What You Should Know

businessman praying in office

By Scott A. Leadingham

If you’re in the United States, doesn’t the First Amendment protect your religious freedom everywhere? And isn’t your employer required to provide religious accommodation at work? These are some common questions about religion in the workplace that we’ll try to answer, as well as:

  • Do I have some religious freedom rights at work? Yes.
  • Can you be discriminated against at work based on your religion? No.
  • Can you ask for accommodations for your religion at work? Yes.
  • Are employers always required to grant accommodation? Not always.

We’ll sort out why and what it means for you in this guide to religion in the workplace.

First, let’s talk about the First Amendment and what it means for religious freedom.

Understanding religion in the workplace

What is religious freedom under the First Amendment?

In the 45 words of the First Amendment, the first lines directly address religion:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

In plain terms, this means two things:

  1. There will be no national religion (such as the Church of England).
  2. Everyone can freely practice their own religion as they see fit. Or people can also freely choose not to practice any religion.

But there’s a little catch.

Where does religious freedom under the First Amendment apply?

Those opening words of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law” – are crucial. Think of the government as a wild horse. The First Amendment is the people’s way of slipping a bridle over the horse’s head and using the reins to guide it in the right direction.

In this case, that direction is toward being free of a single state-sponsored religion. The First Amendment says the government cannot require a state religion, nor can the government deny you a right to practice your religion freely.

But what about religion in the workplace?

The First Amendment does not apply in private workplaces. Why not? Because the First Amendment applies to government actions. And most workplaces, like a restaurant, construction company or private museum, are not government owned.

Can my employer discriminate against me because of my religion?

In short: No.

Federal law (though not the First Amendment) prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Under that law, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers cannot punish you at work or in the hiring process because of your religion or nonreligion. Nor can they punish you because you request a religious accommodation.

A religious accommodation at work could look like this:

  1. Adjusting a schedule to not work on your sabbath day of rest, such as Sunday.
  2. Changing a duty that conflicts with your belief, like serving alcohol if your religion forbids it.
  3. Giving an employee appropriate break times for daily prayer; or other activities that align with a person’s deeply held religious belief.

For example, say you’re a Catholic who works at a large restaurant chain. You usually work the midday shift on Fridays, but you want to attend service on Good Friday. You can request accommodation to change your schedule so you don’t have to work your usual Friday, and your employer cannot discriminate against or otherwise punish you for requesting this change.

Must your religious accommodation at work be granted?

Just because you ask for the religious accommodation at work doesn’t mean you automatically get it.

If your employer demonstrates that granting the religious accommodation will present a substantial burden on the business, they don’t have to grant your request.

In our Good Friday example, say you instead work for a small coffee shop with very few staff. You’re the only person who works on Fridays. All other staff in your same position are out on vacation or sick. You not being there would result in the coffee shop having to close all of Friday, traditionally one of the busiest and most profitable days. In this scenario, it’s possible your employer could deny your request for religious accommodation because granting the request would burden their business.

In the prior example of working at a large national chain restaurant with many employees compared to the small coffee shop, it’s very likely your employer would need to accommodate your request for Friday off. Why? Because the burden placed on the large restaurant with many employees is much less than the coffee shop having to close for the day.

Religious accommodation law is not set in stone

Like most aspects of law, the rules that govern religious accommodations at work are not a once-made, always-followed standard. The U.S. Supreme Court shaped much of the modern interpretation around religious accommodations in a 1977 case involving an airline employee’s religious accommodation request.

In 2023, the Supreme Court updated that ruling in a new case involving a U.S. Postal Service employee who didn’t want to deliver packages on Sundays – the employee’s sabbath day of rest – under a special contract with Amazon.

The court ruled in favor of the Postal Service employee, saying federal civil rights law requires employers show that the burden of granting an employee’s accommodation request would result in “substantial increased costs” for its business.

In the 2023 case (Groff v. DeJoy), the court, in a 9-0 decision, tightened the standard by which employers must prove an “undue hardship” for granting religious accommodation. The court didn’t overturn its 1977 decision (TWA v. Hardison) but rather gave greater deference to employees’ claims than in the past.

What this means for employees is largely the same as before: There’s a court ruling that gives a general outline for interpreting federal law as it applies to religious accommodations at work. But overall, the fine-tuning will happen with individual cases investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and tried before state and federal courts.

Ultimately, everyone in the United States is free to practice their religion, or choose not to, and the government can’t impose a religion on anyone. That’s thanks to the First Amendment.

And thanks to other federal law and court rulings made in the spirit of those First Amendment principles, you can’t be discriminated against for requesting religious accommodations at work.

Scott A. Leadingham is a Freedom Forum staff writer, journalist and journalism trainer. On Twitter: @scottleadingham

Freedom Forum Fellow for Religious Freedom Richard Foltin and Religious Freedom Specialist David Callaway contributed expertise and background research for this article. Learn more about Freedom Forum fellows and First Amendment experts.

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