LEGAL GUIDE
Written by Avvo Staff | Mar 18, 2016

Protections of the Civil Rights Act: Religious expression

Religious discrimination is prohibited in workplaces and public schools under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Such discrimination includes, but is not limited to, harassment, lack of reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs and practices, or adverse decisions about hiring and firing.

The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination due to your religious beliefs, practices, group membership, or affiliation.

You do not have to be part of an organized religion or religious group to be protected. The law also applies to non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs that are as strong as religious beliefs.

Religious expression in the workplace

You have the right to express your religious beliefs as long as your expression does not interfere with workplace safety, negatively affect you or your coworkers job duties, or discriminate against other employees.

Note that only employers in 15 or more employees are covered under the law. However, local and state civil rights laws may protect employees of smaller businesses.

Religious dress

You may wear symbols or clothes required by your religion in the workplace, such as a yarmulke, cross necklace, turban, or headscarf, unless allowing this would pose an undue hardship (see next section). You may also grow a beard or sidelocks, or keep your hair long, if your religious beliefs require it.

If these practices would otherwise violate workplace policies, you must request an accommodation, citing your religious beliefs as the reason. It is illegal for an employer to reassign you to a non-customer service job because the employer thinks customers will respond negatively to your religious dress or grooming.

Practicing your religion

You may discuss your religion with coworkers or invite them to attend religious services or events with you. These discussions must not interfere with anyone’s work, be unwelcome by the people you’re talking with, or create an offensive or hostile work environment.

You may pray or read religious texts during break times. You may ask to use unused rooms or spaces for prayer alone or with other members of your religion. If scheduled prayer is longer than your regular breaks, or occurs at different times than normally scheduled breaks, you may ask your employer for an accommodation.

Making accommodations

Employers must make reasonable religious accommodations as long as it does not create undue hardship. For example, if you need to leave work early for religious services, your employer might allow you to work longer hours on other days to make up for it, or use vacation time to cover it.

Your employer can deny your request for religious accommodation if there is no way to meet your needs without creating undue hardship. Undue hardship includes any accommodation that would make the workplace less safe, interfere unreasonably with the performance of your or other employees’ duties, or discriminate against other employees.

Defining religious harassment

Religious harassment can come from anyone in your workplace, including coworkers, bosses, or customers. Harassment includes offensive comments, jokes, or actions directed toward you or toward a particular religious group, belief, or practice. Harassment does not include teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents.

Harassment is illegal only if it is common or severe enough that the workplace is a hostile, intimidating, or offensive environment, or if you are treated adversely due to your beliefs (for example, your boss demotes you or takes away workplace privileges).

Taking action against religious harassment

You can tell your harasser to stop, but you do not have to. Many targets of harassment choose to take up the issue with the harasser’s boss or the business owner. You can complain about religious discrimination and harassment even if you are not the target of that behavior.

If, at any point, you are unsure of your employer's behavior, talk to your HR department or consult a local business attorney to review your situation. If your employer does not take reasonable steps to end the harassment, you may be able to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Religious expression in public schools

Many Supreme Court cases have addressed students’ rights of religious expression and freedom from discrimination in public schools. Teachers, administrators, schools, and districts must not do anything that appears to endorse a particular religion or religious practice. You cannot be required to hide your religious beliefs altogether.

Although public schools have legal authority to limit student speech, they must apply these limits fairly and evenly. If religious speech is limited, all speech must be limited in the same way.

Dress codes

Public schools may require students to adhere to certain dress and grooming requirements. However, schools may not require you to wear uniforms that violate your religious beliefs about modesty. Students at public schools may also generally wear religious items such as cross necklaces, yarmulkes, hijab, or head scarves.

For example, if schools permit students to wear T-shirts with messages on them, they cannot prohibit religious T-shirts that otherwise meet school policy.

Practicing your religion in school

You are allowed to pray or read religious texts at school during breaks and before or after school. You can pray alone or with other students. You can form a religious club at school if your school allows other student-led extracurricular clubs to meet on campus.

You may conduct flagpole meetings or hallway prayers that do not otherwise interfere with school operations or your student responsibilities. However, public schools may not hold mandatory religious assemblies or gatherings.

The limitations of free speech

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Supreme Court found that students do not have an absolute right to free speech in their school newspapers. School officials may censor or alter student publications for legitimate educational concerns.

For example, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires government to avoid establishing religion. Therefore, public schools must limit religious speech in a student newspaper that would appear to endorse a particular religion.

Bullying

Bullying in public schools includes many of the same behaviors considered harassment in workplaces. Bully behavior includes offensive remarks or jokes, wearing clothing or distributing literature that denigrates other religions or intimidates others, and physical assault.

For example, an invitation to attend church isn’t bullying, but repeated invitations, even though you’ve said you don’t want to be asked, could be. Someone disagreeing with your religious beliefs isn’t bullying, but someone calling you names because of your religion is.

Differences in private schools

Private schools may enact more restrictions on religious speech and observance than public schools. Private schools may limit religious speech or speech that criticizes religion, require observance of a particular religion, and require adherence to a particular religious code of conduct.

Differences in higher education

As in workplaces, college students. are permitted to express and practice their religion when it does not infringe on others’ rights. You may request and receive reasonable religious accommodation. As in K-12 schools, religious speech in student clubs and newspapers can cause conflict, although generally students face fewer speech restrictions.

Some colleges and universities have instituted “hate speech codes” that prohibit some kinds of speech or “free speech zones” that restrict speech to certain locations on campus. The legality of such school rules depends on if they are discriminatory or overly limiting.

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