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Religious Discrimination

Minnesota's increasing diverse population includes people who practice a variety of religions -- for example, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist -- as well as those who espouse no religion at all.

All Minnesotans are protected against religious discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The Act prohibits any adverse treatment based on religion. No person can be discriminated against because of their religion when applying for housing, public accommodations, public service, education, credit or employment.

Unlike sexual harassment or racial discrimination, there is no specific law that defines religious harassment or defines what constitutes a religiously hostile work environment. However, the Human Rights Act does state that an employer cannot refuse to hire someone based upon his or her religion. Nor can an employer fire an employee or otherwise discriminate against them because of religion. Also, court decisions have affirmed a duty to accommodate religious practices. For example, public employees must be allowed a day off if their religion's Holy Day falls on a regular work day.

Minnesotans whose religion mandates a certain style of dress or physical appearance are also protected by the Human Rights Act. An employer must allow this appearance unless it constitutes an undue hardship to the employer. Only then can an employer refuse the accommodation. However, the employer cannot fire an employee if customers indicate they simply do not like the manner of dress or appearance. The hardship to the employer must be based only upon the employer's "bottom line," and not upon customer preference. For example, a clerk in a retail store may practice a religion that requires a certain style of dress, or the covering of the face with a scarf. Even if customers do not like the clerk's appearance and take their business elsewhere, the employer cannot respond to customer preference by firing the employee.

Under the Human Rights Act, an employee has a right to hold religious convictions, but does not have the right to bother other people with them. In the same way, an employer has a right to hold convictions, but cannot mandate that employees participate in them. For example, mandatory prayer meetings within a workplace could be ruled a violation of the Human Rights Act.

The law also prohibits an employer from showing a hiring preference for one religion over another. Asking about an employee's religion during a job interview is illegal. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. For example, a Lutheran church can insist that the minister they hire is Lutheran.

Anyone who has questions about religious discrimination is urged to contact the Minnesota Department of Human Rights at 800-657-3704 or 651-296-5663. Since 1992, about 75 percent of the charges of religious discrimination that the Department has investigated have been based on incidents that have occurred in the workplace.

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