Keeping Religion A Private Family Matter To Help Avoid Claims Of Religious Bias

A woman sued her former employer, a bank in Virginia, and alleged that the employer discriminated against her based on her sex, age, and religion, and then wrongfully terminated her.

The woman worked as the senior vice president of strategic planning and development for the bank from 2017 to 2019, when the bank eliminated her position.

The plaintiff claims that the bank's culture is similar to a cult. According to the allegations contained in the lawsuit, the bank's president and CEO, who is also a senior pastor at a local church, saw himself as the bank's "spiritual leader".

The plaintiff alleges that the president and CEO, as well as other colleagues, discriminated against the plaintiff because of her non-evangelical religious beliefs. The plaintiff claims that she was left out of key meetings; received "discriminatory gendered feedback"; and had her marketing recommendations ignored during the two years she worked for the bank.

She further alleges that subordinate employees disrespected her and the CEO "scolded" her by telling her "to start behaving."

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff received additional responsibilities in May 2018 but was not given a pay raise or title change. However, a male executive with evangelical religious beliefs who had a similar change in duties allegedly received a raise and a new title. "Former executive sues New Peoples Bank for discrimination" (Jan. 19, 2021).

Commentary and Checklist

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state laws prohibit discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against applicants and employees on the basis of religion. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees; however, many state statutes mirror Title VII and require smaller employers to prohibit religious discrimination.

The best practice is to keep religious practices private. Do not ask staff about their religious beliefs or lack thereof. You should never retaliate against staff because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs.

Keep in mind that the same rules apply if you are an atheist - do not discuss your lack of belief with staff.

Here are some additional tips for family employers to help prevent charges of religious discrimination:

  • Do not treat staff or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices except to the extent a religious accommodation is warranted.

  • Staff cannot be forced to participate, or not participate, in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

  • You are not required to accommodate a staff member’s religious beliefs and practices if doing so would impose a legitimate undue hardship.

  • You must permit staff to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship.

  • Have a written policy prohibiting religious discrimination and conduct annual discrimination prevention training.

  • Have effective procedure for reporting, investigating, and correcting harassing or discriminatory conduct.

  • If staff requests accommodation based on religious beliefs, consult an attorney to determine to what extent accommodation is required.

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