Court: Anti-discrimination laws apply to unfamiliar religions, too

A federal appeals court issued a ruling recently that could help protect workers from religious discrimination in the workplace, regardless of what religion they happen to practice.

In a decision handed down on July 31, 2013, the 7 th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago held that protection from religious discrimination is not limited to familiar religions. The decision is directly binding on the 7 th Circuit, which includes Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, and may be influential in other parts of the country as well.

Employer denied funeral leave

The case, Sikiru Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, was brought by a native Nigerian worker against his U.S. employer after the employer repeatedly denied his requests for unpaid leave. Adeyeye, the employee, had requested leave in order to travel to Nigeria to lead to his father's burial, which he was required to do by religious custom. According to the teachings of his religion, Adeyeye's failure to fulfill this obligation would have had profound spiritual consequences for himself and his family.

In his first request, Adeyeye asked his employer for five weeks of unpaid leave in order to make the trip. When that request was denied, he issued a new request for three weeks of unpaid leave in addition to one week of earned vacation. Adeyeye's second request was also denied, but he traveled to Nigeria anyway and was fired upon his return.

After his termination, Adeyeye filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against his former employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects employees from religious discrimination in the workplace.

The case was initially dismissed by the district court, which concluded that Adeyeye had failed to show that his request for leave was religious in nature. The appellate court, however, reversed the dismissal, allowing the lawsuit to move forward. In its opinion, the appellate court wrote that "the protections of Title VII are not limited to familiar religions."

Legal protection against discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. Religious discrimination in the workplace can take many different forms, including hiring, firing, harassing or segregating employees on the basis of religion.

Another type of religious discrimination involves a failure to make reasonable accommodations, as seen in the Adeyeye case. Employers are required by law to make reasonable accommodations for workers' religious beliefs unless the accommodation would be unduly burdensome. Examples of reasonable accommodations may include scheduling changes, adjustment of job duties or modification of the employer's dress or grooming policies.

Employees who experience workplace discrimination should speak with an attorney about their rights and the possibility of seeking a remedy through the legal system.