Despite the fact that our nation was founded on principles of religious freedom, we are not a very tolerant society (though we like to think we are). Instead, we are polarized. More and more, we live on the fringes with little tolerance for those whose viewpoints differ from our own. For example, just last year, Lowe’s pulled its ads from a TLC reality show, “All American Muslim,” and millions boycotted Chick-fil-A based on its public stance against gay marriage.

Given the level of polarization in our society surrounding issues of belief and religion, we should not be surprised that religious discrimination claims in the workplace are trending upward. In 2011, charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging religious discrimination hit an all-time high of 4.2 percent (4,151 total charges). In the past decade, religious discrimination claims with the EEOC are up an astounding 50 percent. For the sake of comparison, consider that overall, charges filed with the EEOC are only up 18 percent over the same 10-year period.

What do these religious discrimination claims look like?

  • In 2011, the EEOC sued a Boca Raton, Fla., nursing home after it fired an employee—a Seventh-day Adventist—who wanted time off to observe the Sabbath.
  • In 2010, the EEOC sued a Virginia moving company that refused to hire a Rastafarian because of his dreadlocks.
  • Also in 2010, the EEOC sued a Colorado meatpacker, alleging that Muslim employees had blood and bones hurled at them, that bathroom walls were covered with vile graffiti and that company supervisors fired many Muslim employees. 

More recently, the EEOC announced that it had settled a religious discrimination lawsuit against Voss Lighting, a Tulsa, Okla., lighting products company. According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, Edward Wolfe believed that he was qualified for an available “operations supervisor” position, as he had prior operations management experience. When Wolfe interviewed for the job, the conversation focused on his religious beliefs and practices, and not his skills or experience. In recommending that the company hire Wolfe, the interviewer only provided to the branch manager information about Wolfe’s personal religious beliefs. When the branch manager subsequently interviewed Wolfe, the majority of the interview focused on Wolfe’s religious activities and beliefs. For instance, the manager asked Wolfe to identify every church he attended over the past several years, where, when, and how he was “saved,” and whether he “would have a problem” coming into work early to attend Bible study off-the-clock. Despite being considered qualified for the position, the company refused to hire Wolfe, and instead later hired someone else whose religious ideology better matched that of the company and its leadership.

This inappropriate melding of business and religion cost Voss Lighting $82,500 to settle the EEOC’s religious discrimination lawsuit. According to Barbara A. Seely, regional attorney of the EEOC’s St. Louis District Office, “Refusing to hire a qualified job applicant because his religious beliefs do not comport with those of the employer’s leadership is illegal, even if the for-profit company purports to have a religious mission or purpose.”

Our Founding Fathers had enough foresight to separate church and state. More than two centuries later, we should have enough experience to separate church from work. Employers that fail to heed this counsel will learn a costly lesson.