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.