Many of the original colonists of the United States came here to escape religious persecution, and today the U.S. government remains largely secular. According to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a government can neither restrict a resident’s right to practice their religion nor force a resident to practice someone else’s religion. In addition, civil rights laws were later enacted prevent the government and most employers from discriminating against people on the basis of religion (real or perceived). This section provides historical, legal, and practical information about religious discrimination under U.S. law.
Religion and the First Amendment
The First Amendment guarantees freedom to practice one's chosen religion (or to not practice any religion) without government interference. But this same amendment also prohibits the government from "establishing," or promoting, a religion. These two aspects of religious freedom sometimes collide, such as when the line between personal expression and government establishment is blurry. But while the First Amendment protects individuals from government interference with -- or establishment of -- religion, discrimination by private parties was established later through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Religious Discrimination: Federal Laws
Titles II, III, IV, and VII of the Civil Rights Act address religious discrimination in public accommodations (restaurants, hotels, etc.); state or local government facilities; public K-12 schools, colleges, and universities; and employment. Religious discrimination in public accommodations, for example, can be illustrated by a restaurant refusing to serve Muslims. A public university that bans an atheist students' group while at the same time allowing a Christian students' group also would be in violation of the law.
Other federal laws that address religious discrimination include the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits religious and other types of discrimination in the sale or rental of housing; and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which protects religious institutions from zoning or landmarking laws that place a substantial burden on religious practice.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides greater protections for the free exercise of religion but has been controversial since its 1993 passage. The law states that "Government shall not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion ... [unless it] ... is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest [and is the] ... least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” This has proven controversial because it tends to blur the lines between practicing one's religion without government restraint and discriminating against others.
Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
The Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace, which includes hiring, firing, promotions, and other aspects of employment. The law also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who wish to practice their religion without restraint. For instance, allowing a Muslim woman to wear a hijab (head scarf) is typically considered reasonable. But sometimes one's religious customs can interfere with the job -- for example, a Rastafarian firefighter would not be allowed to keep his beard and dreadlocks if it compromised the airtight seal needed when wearing a respirator.
There are no concrete rules for what constitutes a reasonable accommodation, but they must not put an undue burden on the employer. If someone's religion requires chanting throughout the day, for example, doing so at the office would be too distracting to others to be considered "reasonable."
Learn more about your rights with respect to religious discrimination by clicking on the links below.