What is Religious Discrimination?

Felicia Dye

Discrimination occurs when a person or group receives unfair, unjust, or unsavory treatment that sets them apart from others. When people receive this type of treatment because of their faith, or lack of faith, this is known as religious discrimination. There are often measures enacted at various levels of society to prevent people from initiating or experiencing this type of treatment.

Religious discrimination occurs when a person receives unfair treatment based on his or her beliefs.
Religious discrimination occurs when a person receives unfair treatment based on his or her beliefs.

A Christian is allowed to dislike Muslims. Likewise a Muslim is allowed to dislike Christians. A member of one religion who uses such differences as a basis for decisions that will affect those of differing religions, however, is discriminating. For example, John may not like to associate with Muslims in leisure circumstances, and that is his right. John, as a recruiter for XYZ Inc., does not, however, have the right to deny a Muslim employment based on his religious beliefs.

Sikhs in India endured a pogrom, or organized massacre, in the early 1980’s.
Sikhs in India endured a pogrom, or organized massacre, in the early 1980’s.

There are many settings in which a person may experience religious discrimination. Much focus is often placed on preventing or eliminating this type of behavior in the workplace. Example of the types of religious discrimination that occur in work environments include refusing to promote someone because of her religion, refusing to allow her access to company benefits, or firing her on the basis of her religion.

People may also experience religious discrimination when looking for housing. If a seller refuses to sell based on religion or a landlord refuses to rent for this reason, these individuals are discriminating. In the United States (US), the Civil Rights Act aims to protect people from this type of discrimination.

In addition to the federal prohibition of this type of behavior, many states have drafted laws outlining this type of discrimination and the remedies that may be sought if it occurs. Many businesses also have explicit policies stating a lack of tolerance for those who discriminate against others because of differing religious beliefs.

It is important to note that religious discrimination does not only result between people with different religions. A person can also experience this type of mistreatment because she does not have a religion. Atheists, for example, are generally protected by laws and regulations that prohibit religious discrimination.

In most democratic societies, a person can take legal action if she is subjected to religious discrimination. There are numerous types of remedies that can result from a successful case. The person who discriminated against her may lose his position or professional license. The victim may be monetarily compensated. If she experienced losses, such as being fired or having her property unfairly repossessed, these things may be given back to her.

Disallowing prayer is a form of religious discrimination.
Disallowing prayer is a form of religious discrimination.

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Discussion Comments


@jennythelib - That's a nice point. I used to teach at a private school that was independent (not a religious school) but it was in the Bible Belt and some of the teachers and students were very religious, and the school generally gave them a lot of leeway. I had to observe another teacher's class one day and I will never forget how uncomfortable-looking was the school's lone Hindu student while his math teacher led the class in a prayer before the lunch bell. (Yes, he could have gone to a different school, but this was the only good one in town. Was it right for her to make him uncomfortable, make him feel alone, or was it a form of religious discrimination?)

It seems, though, that actually the most hated religious group is the group of no religion -- the atheists. Studies show that people are more willing to vote for, make friends with, etc. members of *any* religious minority than they are atheists.


The article does a good job of discussing cases in which discrimination is illegal, like employment discrimination. But it can also be a whole lot more subtle and harder to prove, and not necessarily illegal.

If people are slower to warm up to a new family in the neighborhood because they are Muslims (or Mormons, or Sikhs, or whatever), that's religious discrimination. It is legal, but it is a real disadvantage experienced by a member of a religious minority.

It wasn't so very long ago that people weren't sure that a Catholic could be elected president, and even today the religion of candidates is an issue. When people seriously consider not voting for a person because of his or her religion, that, too, is subtle religious discrimination.

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