Reminder: Religious Discrimination and Harassment Is Still A Serious Issue


When I get asked about non-discrimination and harassment
prevention in the workplace, a significant proportion of these
questions focus on race discrimination and sexual harassment. 
Still, employers should be mindful of other protected
characteristics under federal and state law, even if charges and
lawsuits on those bases are, statistically speaking, less frequent
than others.

While EEOC data show that charges alleging religious
discrimination and harassment in the workplace constituted only 4%
of charges received in fiscal year 2017, religious discrimination
and harassment are prohibited by Title VII and pose significant
liability risks to employers.  A lawsuit filed recently in federal
court in Florida highlights this point.

Christine Choo-Yick was an employee of the US Customs and
Immigration Enforcement agency within the federal Department of
Homeland Security.  Ms. Choo-Yick is a person of Muslim faith. 
While she also alleged sexual harassment, the allegations in her
complaint primarily focus on harassment directed at her in the
workplace on the basis of her religion:

8. [ . . . ] b.  Many of the Plaintiff’s co-workers have made
derogatory and unethical comments about the Plaintiff’s faith
and/or race.

c.  During the week of September 4, 2017, Officer Sean Stephens
laughed at and criticized the Plaintiff for wearing a Hijab Muslim
hair scarf.  He further stated, “what is that you have on your
head,” while humiliating the Plaintiff with boisterous
laughter.

d.  On or around October 10, 2017, a visiting employee called
the Plaintiff a “Hijabist” and a “terrorist.”

e.  On or around November 2, 2017, a co-worker stated that the
Plaintiff was a member of ISIS.

Needless to say, these alleged comments are abhorrent. 
However, evidence suggests incidents like this are becoming more
frequent.  A wide-ranging 2017 study by the Pew Research Center
that found incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination in America are

on the rise,
 with 48% of U.S. Muslims saying they were subject
to at least one discriminatory incident based on
their religion within the previous year.  In the same study, an
estimated 75% of U.S. Muslims agreed that there is “a lot of
discrimination against Muslims in the United States.”

Apart from the obvious issues of religious discrimination and
harassment, comments of this type in the workplace may also
implicate discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color,
and/or national origin under Title VII, depending on the facts. 
Indeed, the potential for these issues to be intertwined prompted
the EEOC to publish a
reminder
 of employers’ obligations to prevent discrimination
and harassment on each of these bases in the wake of the September
11th attacks.

The bottom line for employers: discrimination or harassment on
the basis of religion is prohibited.  Period, full stop. 
Employers’ policies, practices, and non-discrimination and
harassment prevention trainings should be careful not to neglect
this point.

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