Our employment discrimination lawyers recently had an employee ask us, “as an atheist, am I protected from religions discrimination?”
What do atheist “believe” in? Atheism literally means “without gods” (“a” “theism”). Generally, Atheists are simply people who do not believe in the existence of a god or gods. If an atheist doesn’t believe in a god or gods, is that lack of belief a “religion”? For the purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio’s anti-discrimination laws, the answer is yes.
Title VII defines “religion” as “not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. … Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.” Thus, atheist enjoy the same legal protections as anyone else- even if their belief is a lack of belief.
As a result, Under Title VII, employers cannot make their employees participate in prayer at work, religious ceremonies, or treat atheist employees any differently than theist employees. Further, as was the case in Young v. Southwestern Sav. and LoanAss’n, employers cannot mandate that employees attend meetings which open with a prayer or other religious ceremonies. There, the employee, who was an atheist, was forced to resign after she was told that her attendance at monthly meeting in which a Baptist minister opened with a prayer was mandatory. When the employee complained that she did not want to attend because of her objections to the prayers, she was told she could “shut her ears.” When the employee eventually sued for religious discrimination and constructive discharge, the court found that she could pursue her claims against the employer, even though her “religion,” atheism, is the lack of any religious belief at all.
There haven’t been any cases on this exact topic arising directly under Ohio law, but it would likely apply in the same manner as Title VII. Ohio R.C. § 4112.02 makes it unlawful for an employer to “discharge without just cause, to refuse to hire, or otherwise to discriminate against that person with respect to hire, tenure, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, or any matter directly or indirectly related to employment” any employee because of their religion. Ohio R.C. § 4112.01 does not define “religion,” but absent a strong policy reason not to, an Ohio court would likely turn to Title VII for guidance on the laws scope.
If you feel that you are being discriminated or harassed based on your religion or religious beliefs, the best course of action you can take is to call the right attorney at 866-797-6040 to schedule a free and confidential consultation. At The Spitz Law Firm, you will meet with a religious discrimination attorney, who will be able to tell you what your legal rights are and the best way to protect them.
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