Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

The freedom of religious expression is one of the most cherished American rights. Despite a pronounced separation of church and state, the government provides workplace protections for employees suffering from religious discrimination and harassment. This page was designed to discuss some of the laws prohibiting religious discrimination in the workplace and help those who might be unsure about contacting an attorney to make a decision. The following topics are covered on this page:

  • California law on religious discrimination in the workplace
  • Reasonable accommodations for religious preferences
  • Exemptions
  • What can I recover in a religious discrimination case?
  • Statute of limitations
  • How much does a lawyer cost?

It’s important to keep in mind, that while certain topics related to employment law are covered on this page, nothing contained here is intended as a substitute for speaking with a employment attorney. The law is complex and no webpage, no matter how informative, can adequately discuss legal nuances the way only a legal expert can. If after reading this page you still have questions regarding religious discrimination in the workplace, contact our office to see how we can help. If you have questions about a different kind of discrimination, click here.

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California Laws and Religious Discrimination

While federal law, such as Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act, protects workers against religious discrimination, California law is stronger. In the State of California, employment attorneys often prefer to make use of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).This is due to the unique advantages the FEHA offers employees over federal laws. For instance, an FEHA state case does not require a unanimous verdict. In addition, FEHA does not put a cap on damages.

FEHA § 12940 states that it is unlawful, except in cases of a bona fide occupational qualification, for an employer to fire, refuse to hire or discriminate in terms privileges of employment because of a worker’s religious creed.

In addition, when an employee’s religious observances cause a conflict in the workplace (such as a scheduling conflict), an employer must explore reasonable accommodations to resolve the issue. This might include the possibility of excusing a person from duties that conflict with the worker’s religious belief. Continue reading to learn more about reasonable accommodations, as well as exceptions to the law.

Reasonable Accommodations

The FEHA requires an employer to explore any reasonable alternative means of accommodating a worker’s religious beliefs or observances. For instance, the law protects certain employees who can’t work on the Sabbath. Depending on the type of job being performed, the religiously observant employee might be scheduled to work on a day other than the Sabbath.

Reasonable accommodations might also apply in many other situations involving work and employee’s religious observances. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported on a Sikh man, Trilochan Oberoi, who sought work as a prison guard in California.

The California Department of Corrections denied Oberoi work because he could not wear the state issued gas mask over his facial hair (adherents of the Sikh religion do not shave facial hair). However, prior to applying to the Department of Corrections, Oberoi had spent time in the Indian navy, and had been able to safely wear a gas mask during his military service. It was also argued that the state could have provided special gas masks wearable over facial hair, however, the state declined to do this.

After Oberoi sued the California Department of Corrections, a settlement was reached, and he was awarded $295,000. He was also given an administrative desk job.

These are just a couple examples of the discussions involving reasonable accommodations. There are many other situations that could be described. If you feel that you were denied your legal right to reasonable accommodations, contact our office to speak with one of our qualified attorneys.


It’s important to keep in mind that there are certain exceptions in discrimination laws favoring employers. Typically, religious institutions and non-profits are not covered by FEHA — a Christian University, for instance, might be allowed to deny employment to an adherent of the Islamic faith.

In addition, the FEHA allows certain types of discrimination to occur where a religious observance cannot be reasonably accommodated without undue hardship to the employer. If you are unsure whether or not an employer is exempt from certain sections of the FEHA, contact our office for more information.

What Can I Recover in a Religious Lawsuit Case?

This is a difficult question to answer with any degree of certainty as most discrimination cases settle. Because settlements are subject to confidentiality rules, little data exists.

However, California law allows plaintiffs to recover lost wages. This means if you were earning an annual salary of $65,000 per year at the time the discriminatory act occurred, and you were unable to find employment for two years after, you might be able to recover $130,000.

In addition, you might be eligible to recover compensation for pain and suffering caused as the result of religious discrimination. Pain and suffering can include stress, depression, anxiety, muscle spasms, and other ailments.  The law has also incentivized employment lawyers to take on discrimination cases by allowing plaintiffs to recover attorney’s fees.

Finally, in rare cases, a victim of religious discrimination can recover punitive damages. This is done to deter companies from engaging in discriminating behavior again. However, in order to win punitive damages, the plaintiff must prove that the company acted with malice, fraud or oppression.

Statute of Limitations

Usually an employee who believes they have been the victim of religious discrimination in the workplace has a year from the date of termination to obtain what is known as a right-to sue letter from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Once this letter is obtained, the employee typically has a year to file a lawsuit.

However, in some cases, particularly for certain public entities, the statute of limitations can be shorter. It’s important to remember that once a discriminatory act takes place, the clock starts ticking. If the statue of limitations runs out, your case is lost forever. Accordingly, it’s important to consult an employment attorney sooner than later if you have questions about religious discrimination in the workplace.

How Much Does a Lawyer Cost?

Religious discrimination lawyers are paid on a contingency fee basis. This means that the attorney is paid only when you are awarded damages by the judge or jury. Prior to taking the case, you and your lawyer will agree on a percentage of the award.

Should I Contact an Attorney?

While an employee who has been the victim of religious discrimination is not required to obtain the services of an attorney, it is highly recommended they do. The law is subtle, complex and requires an objective legal mind.

If you have questions about religious discrimination in the workplace, the statute of limitations or other areas of employment law, contact our office to see how we can help.

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