Can I be fired because of my religious beliefs?

By Douglas Lipsky

When people hear of discrimination in the workplace, it’s often in the context of race or gender discrimination. Religious discrimination is, however, common – as a recent case in Ventura County California demonstrates. The former director of Ventura County Animal Services claims she was wrongfully terminated in 2018 because she refused repeated and unwanted requests to pray by her boss.  

The claim, filed in February 2019, did not elaborate as to why she was asked to pray. The county denied that she was terminated because of her refusal to pray, but provided no information as to why the employee was let go. While it is unclear how this matter will be resolved, it is illegal to fire an employee for religious reasons. If you have been the victim of religious discrimination in New York City, it is important to know your rights.

What is religious discrimination?

Religious discrimination occurs when employees are treated unfairly because of their religious beliefs. In an employment context, religion includes established religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) as well as any sincerely held ethical, personal or religious beliefs (e.g. atheism, ethical humanism, veganism).

Discrimination on the basis of an employee’s religion is prohibited under the New York City and New York State Human Rights Laws, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Generally, there are two forms of religious discrimination — disparate treatment and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation:

  • Religious disparate treatment — Making employment decisions, such as hiring, demoting, terminating, or taking any other adverse employment action against an employee based on religion. This form of religious discrimination can also occur when when an employee is harassed for his or her beliefs by supervisors, coworkers, or third parties (e.g. customer, vendor).

  • Failure to provide a reasonable accommodation — Employers are required to make a  reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs, such as allowing the observance of daily prayers, wearing certain religious garments (e.g. a yarmulke, hijab), taking time off to observe a religious holiday, or following grooming customs (e.g. a Sikh beard or Rastafarian dreadlocks).



What is religious harassment?

Religious harassment occurs when anyone, a supervisor, coworker, vendor or customer, engages in offense offensive conduct or makes derogatory comments about a person’s religious beliefs. A single offhand may not constitute harassment, however, conduct that is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment is unlawful. Examples of harassing behavior includes making offensive jokes about another’s religion as well as proselytizing (attempting to convert someone from one religion or belief to another), if it interferes with an employees ability to perform his or her job duties.

In the case of the terminated Ventura County employee, being asked to pray at work could be construed as religious harassment, and being fired for refusing to pray could be considered religious disparate treatment.

Why This Matters

If you have been subjected to religious discrimination or harassment in the workplace, you should consult an experienced employment law attorney. Whether your claim is resolved through negotiation or litigation, you may be awarded compensation for your pain and suffering, lost wages, and other losses.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.