Freedom of Religion is a Strongly Held American Value
Freedom to believe and practice one’s own religion was one of the primary factors that motivated people to travel to colonial America and continues to motivate similar journeys today. Consequently, it is not surprising that discrimination based on religion is one of the specific kinds of discrimination protected under both federal and Idaho law. Since 1969 the Idaho Human Rights Act (Title 67, Chapter 59) of the Idaho Code has prohibited discrimination in employment, public accommodations, education, and real estate transactions on the basis of religion.
Most religious discrimination claims brought to the Commission do not question whether a belief or practice is actually religious in nature, and thus, entitled to legal protection. Occasionally, however, that issue is raised. Case law defines “religion” in a broad way that includes moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong that are sincerely held by the individual person with the strength of traditional religious views. The fact that no religious group espouses such belief, or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief, does not determine whether the belief is “religious” to that individual.
Courts have also held that the freedom not to believe is also a religious belief protected by the anti-discrimination statutes. For example, an employee who is an atheist may be a victim of religious discrimination if she is required to attend her employer’s monthly staff meetings that begin with religious exercises which she, as an atheist, finds objectionable.
Religious Discrimination in Employment
Employers may not treat employees or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs, including all aspects of religious observance and practice. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire or fail to promote an individual because of his religious beliefs or practices.
Employers must take steps to prevent religious harassment of their employees. Verbal or physical conduct may be harassing if it is directed at someone because of religion and has the purpose or effect of creating a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment.
Employees cannot be forced to participate — or not participate — in a religious activity as a condition of employment.
Employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ or applicants’ sincerely held religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship (unreasonable cost or excessive adjustment) on the employer. A reasonable religious accommodation is an adjustment to the work environment that will allow a person to practice his or her religion and be productively employed. As examples, employers accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices by allowing: flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps in scheduling, job reassignments or transfers, providing space for daily prayers, modification of grooming and dress requirements and other workplace practices, policies and/or procedures. Employers are not expected to grant religious accommodations that are costly or would otherwise create an undue hardship on the business.
Finally, employees who request religious accommodations must cooperate with the employer’s accommodation efforts. Employees are not entitled to receive their preferred accommodation: just one that meets their religious needs.
Other Forms of Religious Discrimination
The Idaho Human Rights Act also prohibits religious discrimination by places of public accommodation, (such as stores, restaurants, theatres or care facilities) educational institutions, and those engaged in real estate transactions (such as landlords, home sellers or real estate lenders). Claims of religious discrimination in any of the areas are not made very frequently to the Commission. Occasionally, however, the Commission does get reports of stores that offer merchandise discounts to people who belong to one religion; of service refused to customers wearing traditional religious garments; or of homeowners who prefer to rent or sell their home to members of their own church. The rule is basic:
Individuals should not be treated more or less favorably in any of these areas because of their religious beliefs or practices. Decisions about providing service, educational benefits or real estate transactions should be made without regard to someone’s religious preferences.