Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

September 25, 2000

Source: The Buffalo News

On September 25, 2000, The Buffalo News reported that "the upcoming 10-day Jewish holiday period, which starts with Rosh Hashanah and culminates with Yom Kippur, can act as a barometer of workplace religious tolerance, according to Marlene Glickman, retired executive director of the Western New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Glickman said the yearly fall observances, and Passover, which occurs in the spring, often pit the dominant Christian calendar against the Jewish calendar. 'In most places of work, you'd never have to go to your boss to ask off for Christmas or Easter. The major Christian holidays are a structural part of the workplace calendar,' Glickman said. 'But if you don't happen to be Christian, you are automatically put in the uncomfortable position of having to ask for something special. At best you feel different, at worst, ostracized.' Shehnaz Engineer faces a similar situation when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches. While the Tops Markets executive has met with nothing but understanding and acceptance of her religious practices from her superiors, she still wrestles with how to satisfy both her religious obligations and work duties. While she felt it was appropriate to ask for time off to make a faith-required pilgrimage to Mecca a few months after being hired, a request that was granted without hassle, she has not asked her employer for other things, such as a venue for her to make an afternoon prayer offering. Instead, she bends the rules a bit, and performs that Muslim ritual on her lunch hour, or as soon as she gets home from work...Issues relating to work and religion are of growing concern in the American workplace due to the evolving nature of religion in the U.S. While Christianity remains far and away the dominant religion in this country, Muslims are about to overtake Jews for the No. 2 spot, with several other religious groups expanding their ranks. 'We are no longer the mono-cultural, mono-religious country we once were, and neither are the places we work," said Mauricio Velasquez, president of The Diversity Training Group, of Herndon, Va. 'Unfortunately, a lot of companies haven't figured that out yet, and probably won't until a worker sues them.'

"Religious discrimination claims are among the fastest growing category of complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Some 1,811 such claims were filed with the agency in 1999, up from 1,584 in the prior year. Under a 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act, employers are required to make 'reasonable accommodations to their employees' religious observations.' It's a rather vague edict that has led to a hodge-podge of workplace policies, according to Velasquez. 'We are seeing some companies, especially the larger corporations, go all out to make sure they are doing the right things to address religious diversity,' he said. 'But that said, we have a long, long way to go.'"