Civil Rights Report 2017: Workplace Discrimination

Workplace Discrimination and Accommodations

The challenges American Muslims face in the workplace have remained consistent in both number and nature in recent years. Given the current divisive and hostile political climate, the EEOC has expressed increasing concern to prevent the harassment and discrimination of those who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim and/or Middle Eastern in the workplace.

In January, CAIR filed discrimination complaints with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for denial of religious accommodation on behalf of a group of Somali Muslim workers in Wisconsin. Their employer, Ariens Company, fired these individuals after the manufacturing plant changed its prayer break policy. Prior to this, Ariens had permitted Muslim employees to leave their workstations one at a time to pray after notifying and receiving permission from their supervisor. The Muslim employees’ brief time away from their workstation did not affect the overall flow of production, or their ability to complete their designated tasks. In addition, Ariens’ practice of allowing Muslim employees to request brief breaks to perform their prayers, which generally arose only once during a scheduled shift, was the same practice used when employees generally requested breaks for non-religious purposes.

On January 25, 2016, Ariens instituted a new policy which prohibited Muslim employees from taking prayer breaks outside of the two company-wide ten-minute break periods, which were scheduled prior to prayer times. In the EEOC charge, CAIR argued that, “Ariens’ unilateral and arbitrary decision to revoke the company’s break policy solely with respect to religiously-motivated requests, as well as its complete unwillingness to engage in an interactive process with aggrieved employees about its accommodation policies, directly undermines the purpose of Title VII.” The EEOC investigation is ongoing.

The Letter of the Law

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law prohibiting employers from discriminating against a person because of his or her membership in a protected class. Discrimination is forbidden when it adversely affects any material term or condition of employment, including the hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, and benefits of employees or prospective employees. Religious discrimination involves treating a person, whether an applicant or employee, unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. Title VII also prohibits harassment, such as offensive comments about a person’s religious beliefs or practices, when it creates a hostile work environment.

In addition to the general prohibition against discrimination, Title VII provides an affirmative obligation on employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief or practice. Employers are not, however, required to accommodate an employee’s religious belief or practice when it causes an undue hardship, or more than a “de minimis cost,” on the operation of its business. Religious practice is broadly defined under Title VII.

These include not only traditional religious beliefs, but, importantly, any sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God. For example, a Muslim woman who wears a religious headscarf may obtain an exception to the company’s dress and grooming policies. Moreover, a Muslim employee may request a break schedule that will permit daily prayers at prescribed times. If the request would not pose an undue hardship, the employer must grant the accommodation.

A High Profile Case

In 2015, the US Supreme Court held in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch that an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant if the employer is motivated by avoiding the need to accommodate a religious practice.

The case arose when Samantha Elauf, then a Muslim teenager who wore a headscarf as part of her faith, applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was denied the position for failing to conform to the company’s “Look Policy,” which Abercrombie & Fitch claimed banned head coverings. CAIR helped Elauf file a charge with the EEOC, alleging religious discrimination. The EEOC subsequently filed suit against the company, alleging that they refused to hire Samantha Elauf because of her religion, and that it failed to accommodate her religious beliefs by making an exception to its “Look Policy” prohibiting head coverings.

In December 2014, CAIR filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in support of Elauf and the EEOC. In the brief, CAIR argued:

“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensures equality of employment opportunities by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion. Because an applicant’s religious views, and the need for the accommodation thereof, should not be any part of the basis for an employment decision, CAIR supports the position of the Petitioner and requests that the Court reverse the Tenth Circuit’s decision requiring that a job applicant or employee provide direct, explicit notice of their religious observance or practice to trigger fundamental protections under Title VII.”

“The Tenth Circuit’s ruling requiring explicit, upfront notice of an employee’s religious beliefs allows employers to ‘weed out’ religious job candidates at a vulnerable stage: before they are hired.”

“Adoption of the explicit notice rule would likely have a disastrous effect on the Muslim community’s overall employment rate. Muslims and EEOC offices have reported a “shocking” spike in anti-Muslim employment discrimination since September 2001. Despite the fact that Muslims make up only 0.8% of the country’s population, around 20% of the religious discrimination complaints received by the EEOC were from Muslims.”

CAIR welcomed the Supreme Court’s historic 8-1 ruling in defense of religious freedom at a time when the American Muslim community faces increased levels of Islamophobia. By underscoring that a job applicant’s religious beliefs and practices should play no role in an employer’s hiring decision, the Supreme Court concluded that a company engages in illegal employment discrimination when it decides not to hire someone out of a desire to avoid accommodating his or her religious needs, confirmed or not.


  • Ensure that management is aware of the corporate obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • Provide cultural competence training to employees at all levels.

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