Employment Discrimination in California Based on Religion

It is against the law for an employer to discriminate against a person based on his or her religious beliefs. Employees who are discriminated against based on their religion or religious beliefs can file a lawsuit against their employer for damages.

Below, our California employment discrimination lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about lawsuits for religious discrimination against California workers:

Religious 20discrimination
Protections from religious discrimination apply to all religions, sincerely held religious or moral beliefs, a spouse’s religion, and even to perceived religion.

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. Can an employer in California refuse to hire someone because of the applicant's religion?

Religious discrimination in employment is a violation of California state and federal law. Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), it is illegal for an employer to discriminate based on religion.1

Under the FEHA, it is an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against a person because of his or her religion. This includes:

  • Refusing to hire or employ
  • Refusing to select a person for a training program
  • Firing, bearing, or discharging an employee
  • Discriminating against a person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.2

Religious discrimination includes almost all aspects of a religious belief or practice. Under the FEHA, discrimination based on “religion” includes:

  • Religious creed
  • Religion
  • Religious observance
  • Religious belief
  • Religious dress
  • Religious grooming practices.3

Religious dress and religious grooming practice are construed broadly. This includes wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, artifacts, or other items. Religious grooming includes forms of head, facial, and body hair that are part of the observance of an individual's religious creed.4

The laws against religious discrimination also apply to unions and labor organizations, which are prohibited from excluding, expelling, or restricting membership to a person based on religious creed.5 Religious discrimination prohibitions also apply to apprenticeship training programs and employment agencies.67

An employer that is a religious corporation can restrict eligibility for employment in certain cases. This includes where the job or position involves the performance of religious duties. However, this is generally limited to religious duties and does not apply to work connected with providing health care.89

Employers are also required to reasonably accommodate religious beliefs and observances. Employers have to provide reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs so long as the accommodation does not cause the employer “undue hardship.” This includes accommodations that cause significant difficulty or expenses for the employer.

2. What religions are protected from religious discrimination?

Protections from religious discrimination apply to all religions, sincerely held religious or moral beliefs, a spouse's religion, and even to perceived religion. It is still considered religious discrimination to treat someone differently even if the individual is not actually of the religion they believed to be.

For example, many Sikhs are discriminated against because people incorrectly think they are Muslim. If an employer does not hire a Sikh because the employer thinks the applicant is Muslim, it is still religious discrimination even if the employer was wrong about the applicant's religion.

Religious discrimination may occur against individuals from traditional and organized religions, such as:

  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • Judaism
  • Buddhism
  • Hinduism

Religious discrimination also applies to different sects or faiths of a religion, such as Sunni or Shia Muslims, or Catholic or Protestant Christians. However, religious protections also apply to individual religious beliefs, even if they are not part of a traditional or organized religion.

A religious creed is protected as: "beliefs, observances, or practices which an individual sincerely holds and which occupy in his or her life a place of importance parallel to that of traditionally recognized religions."10

Religious creed discrimination also prohibits denying benefits because of an applicant's or employee's lack of religious creed.11

However, religious creed may not protect secular philosophical beliefs in California. For example, the California Appellate Court ruled that an employee's vegan beliefs that animals should not be harmed did not qualify as a religion under the FEHA.12

The federal law defines religion differently than California law, which may provide broader protections than state law. Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) definition, religious practices include, “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views."13

3. How do I know if I was discriminated against because of my religion?

It is illegal for an employer to do any of the following based on your religion or religious practices:

  • Refuse to hire you
  • Refuse to select you for a training program
  • Demote you
  • Fire you
  • Pay you less
  • Reduce your salary
  • Deny equal pay
  • Deny a promotion
  • Deny reinstatement
  • Deny benefits
  • Force you to quit
  • Harass you on the basis of religion
  • Discriminate against you in any way

Discrimination against an employee can be obvious; however, it is often more subtle or discreet. Discrimination can take place without an employee even understanding that he or she was treated differently because of religious reasons.

4. Should I file a religious discrimination complaint?

Religious discrimination in the workplace is a violation of California state law and federal law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal religious discrimination laws. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is the state agency that handles complaints of religious discrimination.

In most cases, California law offers broader protections for anti-discrimination cases than federal law. For this reason, many people in California prefer to file a religious discrimination complaint with the DFEH than the EEOC.

If an employee wants to file a lawsuit against his or her employer for religious discrimination in California, the employee is usually required to exhaust all administrative remedies first. This may mean the employee has to go through the DFEH complaint process before they can file a lawsuit. However, your attorney may file a complaint with the DFEH and obtain an immediate right to sue notice without waiting for the administrative process first.14

You can file a religious discrimination complaint directly with the DFEH. In general, you must submit a pre-complaint inquiry within one year of the last incident of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. However, there are exceptions to this time limit, including where the individual did not learn about the unlawful practice until after the expiration of one year.15

The complaint can be filed online, by phone, or using the form from the DFEH website. The pre-complaint inquiry will initiate an intake interview with the DFEH and help determine whether a complaint can be accepted for investigation.

An investigator will contact the individual who filed the complaint within 60 days and discuss the details of the alleged discrimination or harassment. If the DFEH representative determines the state will not handle the complaint, the matter will be dismissed, and the individual has the immediate right to sue their employer in court. If the representative accepts the pre-complaint inquiry, a complaint will be prepared for your signature and delivered to the employer. The complaint can also be dual-filed with the EEOC at this point.

After the employer responds to the complaint, the DFEH will review the answer. In many cases, the DFEH will offer dispute resolution services, which provide a way for the employee and employer to negotiate a resolution to the complaint. If the complaint cannot be resolved through negotiations, the DFEH will initiate an investigation.

A religious discrimination investigation will determine whether there was a violation of California law. If the investigation finds there was a violation, the case will go the DFEH Legal Division. If there is no violation, the case will be closed. If the case is closed, the employee still has the immediate right to take their case to court.

The DFEH Legal Division generally requires the parties to go through mediation. Mediation is a type of alternative dispute resolution where a neutral mediator helps the parties come together to find a mutually agreeable solution. A benefit of mediation is that it allows the employer and employee to come up with their own way to settle the dispute, without leaving it all up to a judge to decide the outcome.

If the parties cannot settle the dispute through mediation, the DFEH could file a lawsuit on behalf of the employee against the employer. If the DFEH does not pursue the claim, it will close the investigation and the employee has the immediate right to file a lawsuit against the employer.

5. Can I sue my employer for religious discrimination in California?

Under California law, it is a civil right to have the opportunity to seek and hold employment without discrimination based on religious creed. Employees who are discriminated against because of their religion or religious practices can sue their employers for discrimination.16

An employee generally has to file a complaint with the DFEH or EEOC before they can file a lawsuit in civil court. This requires obtaining a “right to sue” notice before your case can be taken to court.

You can request an immediate right to sue notice, without having to go through a complete DFEH or EEOC investigation. However, if you receive a Right-to-Sue notice, your complaint will not be investigated by DFEH. Alternatively, you may also wait until the DFEH dismisses your case or finds no violation before taking your case to court.17

According to the DFEH, proceeding directly to court without an investigation by the DFEH is only advisable if you have an attorney. Your attorney can obtain a right to sue notice and file your case in California Superior Court, in the county where the discrimination occurred, or another relevant county.18

The complaint will be served upon your employer and anyone else named in the lawsuit as defendants. The defendants will respond to the complaint with a formal answer responding to the allegations, and the case may proceed through litigation. At any point before the end of a trial, the employer and employee can negotiate a settlement and settle the case out of court.

6. What are my damages in an employment discrimination lawsuit in California?

The damages available in an employment discrimination lawsuit will depend on the type of discrimination involved and the extent of the harm to the employee or applicant. This may include money damages, punitive damages, and equitable remedies.

Money damages from religious employment discrimination may include losses from:

  • Back pay
  • Front pay
  • Higher income from a promotion
  • Higher income from a raise
  • Benefits
  • Pension benefits
  • Bonus payments
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress

Employees who have suffered discrimination can also seek to have the employer reimburse their expenses for attorney's fees and court costs.19

An employee may also eligible to receive punitive damages. Punitive damages are a way to punish the behavior of the wrongdoer and act as a way to deter the employer or other employers from engaging in similar wrongful behavior in the future.

Another remedy in employment discrimination cases is reinstatement. If an employee has been fired based on their religion, the court can require the employer to rehire the employee. However, the employee may not always want this remedy that requires them to return to the discriminatory workplace.

7. Can my boss fire me for reporting religious discrimination?

California workers cannot be retaliated against for opposing workplace discrimination.20

The FEHA protects employees who are retaliated against for:

  • Opposing workplace harassment
  • Opposing religious discrimination against other employees
  • Reporting religious discrimination or workplace harassment
  • Assisting with DFEH investigations or government inquiries
  • Filing a harassment or discrimination claim or lawsuit

An employer cannot take retaliatory action, including termination, against an employee for citing discrimination or harassment violations or filing a religious discrimination lawsuit.21 Firing an employee for filing a harassment or discrimination claim is considered "wrongful termination".

If an employer retaliates against an employee for reporting FEHA violations or other employment law violations, the employee may be able to file a complaint with the DFEH or file a lawsuit against the employer for retaliation or wrongful termination.

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For questions about California religious discrimination laws, retaliation, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled California employment law attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local employment law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 -- Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (a) For an employer, because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of any person, to refuse to hire or employ the person or to refuse to select the person for a training program leading to employment, or to bar or to discharge the person from employment or from a training program leading to employment, or to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”)
  2. Same.
  3. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12926 -- Definitions. (“(q) “Religious creed,” “religion,” “religious observance,” “religious belief,” and “creed” include all aspects of religious belief, observance, and practice, including religious dress and grooming practices. “Religious dress practice” shall be construed broadly to include the wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed. “Religious grooming practice” shall be construed broadly to include all forms of head, facial, and body hair that are part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed.”)
  4. Same.
  5. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 -- Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (b) For a labor organization, because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of any person, to exclude, expel, or restrict from its membership the person, or to provide only second-class or segregated membership or to discriminate against any person because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of the person in the election of officers of the labor organization or in the selection of the labor organization's staff or to discriminate in any way against any of its members or against any employer or against any person employed by an employer.”)
  6. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 -- Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (c) For any person to discriminate against any person in the selection, termination, training, or other terms or treatment of that person in any apprenticeship training program, any other training program leading to employment, an unpaid internship, or another limited duration program to provide unpaid work experience for that person because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of the person discriminated against.”)
  7. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 -- Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (d) For any employer or employment agency to print or circulate or cause to be printed or circulated any publication, or to make any nonjob-related inquiry of an employee or applicant, either verbal or through use of an application form, that expresses, directly or indirectly, any limitation, specification, or discrimination as to race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status, or any intent to make any such limitation, specification, or discrimination. This part does not prohibit an employer or employment agency from inquiring into the age of an applicant, or from specifying age limitations, where the law compels or provides for that action.”)
  8. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12922. (“Notwithstanding any other provision of this part, an employer that is a religious corporation may restrict eligibility for employment in any position involving the performance of religious duties to adherents of the religion for which the corporation is organized.”)
  9. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12926.2. (“(d) “Employer” does not include a religious corporation with respect to either the employment, including promotion, of an individual of a particular religion, or the application of the employer's religious doctrines, tenets, or teachings, in any work connected with the provision of health care.”)
  10. California Code of Regulations 11060 -- Establishing Religious Creed Discrimination. (”Religious creed” includes any traditionally recognized religion as well as beliefs, observances, or practices, which an individual sincerely holds and which occupy in his or her life a place of importance parallel to that of traditionally recognized religions. It encompasses all aspects of religious belief, observance, and practice, including religious dress and grooming practices, as defined by Government Code section 12926.”)
  11. California Code of Regulations 11060 -- Establishing Religious Creed Discrimination. (”Religious creed discrimination may be established by showing: (a) Employment benefits have been denied, in whole or in part, because of an applicant's or employee's religious creed or lack of religious creed. (b) The employer or other covered entity has failed to reasonably accommodate the applicant's or employee's religious creed despite being informed by the applicant or employee or otherwise having become aware of the need for reasonable accommodation. (c) Religious creed is a protected category under the Act, and the examples of unlawful conduct provided in this section are non-exclusive.”)
  12. Friedman v. Southern Cal. Permanente Medical, 102 Cal. App. 4th 39, 70 (2002), cert. denied 123 S.Ct. 2078) (“ There is no claim that veganism speaks to: the meaning of human existence; the purpose of life; theories of humankind's nature or its place in the universe; matters of human life and death; or the exercise of faith. There is no apparent spiritual or otherworldly component to plaintiff's beliefs. Rather, plaintiff alleges a moral and ethical creed limited to the single subject of highly valuing animal life and ordering one's life based on that perspective. While veganism compels plaintiff to live in accord with strict dictates of behavior, it reflects a moral and secular, rather than religious, philosophy.”)
  13. 29 CFR 1605.1 -- “Religious” Nature of a Practice or Belief. (“In most cases whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not at issue. However, in those cases in which the issue does exist, the Commission will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”)
  14. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12960. (“(b) Any person claiming to be aggrieved by an alleged unlawful practice may file with the department a verified complaint, in writing, that shall state the name and address of the person, employer, labor organization, or employment agency alleged to have committed the unlawful practice complained of, and that shall set forth the particulars thereof and contain other information as may be required by the department. The director or his or her authorized representative may in like manner, on his or her own motion, make, sign, and file a complaint.”)
  15. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12960. (“No complaint may be filed after the expiration of one year from the date upon which the alleged unlawful practice or refusal to cooperate occurred, except that this period may be extended as follows: (1) For a period of time not to exceed 90 days following the expiration of that year, if a person allegedly aggrieved by an unlawful practice first obtained knowledge of the facts of the alleged unlawful practice after the expiration of one year from the date of their occurrence. (2) For a period of time not to exceed one year following a rebutted presumption of the identity of the person's employer under Section 12928 , in order to allow a person allegedly aggrieved by an unlawful practice to make a substitute identification of the actual employer. (3) For a period of time, not to exceed one year from the date the person aggrieved by an alleged violation of Section 51.7 of the Civil Code becomes aware of the identity of a person liable for the alleged violation, but in no case exceeding three years from the date of the alleged violation if during that period the aggrieved person is unaware of the identity of any person liable for the alleged violation. (4) For a period of time not to exceed one year from the date that a person allegedly aggrieved by an unlawful practice attains the age of majority.”)
  16. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12921. (“(a) The opportunity to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status is hereby recognized as and declared to be a civil right.”)
  17. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12965 -- Unlawful Practices. (“(b) If a civil action is not brought by the department within 150 days after the filing of a complaint, or if the department earlier determines that no civil action will be brought, the department shall promptly notify, in writing, the person claiming to be aggrieved that the department shall issue, on his or her request, the right-to-sue notice.”)
  18. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12965 -- Unlawful Practices. (“(b) ... The superior courts of the State of California shall have jurisdiction of those actions, and the aggrieved person may file in these courts. An action may be brought in any county in the state in which the unlawful practice is alleged to have been committed, in the county in which the records relevant to the practice are maintained and administered, or in the county in which the aggrieved person would have worked or would have had access to the public accommodation but for the alleged unlawful practice, but if the defendant is not found within any of these counties, an action may be brought within the county of the defendant's residence or principal office.”)
  19. Fair Employment and Housing Act 12965 -- Unlawful Practices. (“(b) ... In civil actions brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party, including the department, reasonable attorney's fees and costs, including expert witness fees.”)
  20. Government Code 12940 GC -- Employers, labor organizations, employment agencies and other persons; unlawful employment practice; exceptions FEHA wrongful termination / retaliation. ("It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: . . . (h) For any employer, labor organization, employment agency, or person to discharge, expel, or otherwise discriminate against any person because the person has opposed any practices forbidden under this part or because the person has filed a complaint, testified, or assisted in any proceeding under this part.")
  21. California Code of Regulations (CCR) tit. 2, § 11021. ("a) FEHA Retaliation Generally. It is unlawful for an employer or other covered entity to demote, suspend, reduce, fail to hire or consider for hire, fail to give equal consideration in making employment decisions, fail to treat impartially in the context of any recommendations for subsequent employment that the employer or other covered entity may make, adversely affect working conditions or otherwise deny any employment benefit to an individual because that individual has opposed practices prohibited by the Act or has filed a complaint, testified, assisted or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing conducted by the Council or Department or its staff. (1) Opposition to practices prohibited by the Act includes, but is not limited to: (A) Seeking the advice of the Department or Council, whether or not a complaint is filed, and if a complaint is filed, whether or not the complaint is ultimately sustained; (B) Assisting or advising any person in seeking the advice of the Department or Council, whether or not a complaint is filed, and if a complaint is filed, whether or not the complaint is ultimately sustained; (C) Opposing employment practices that an individual reasonably believes to exist and believes to be a violation of the Act; (D) Participating in an activity that is perceived by the employer or other covered entity as opposition to discrimination, whether or not so intended by the individual expressing the opposition; or (E) Contacting, communicating with or participating in the proceeding of a local human rights or civil rights agency regarding employment discrimination on a basis enumerated in the Act.")

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