Religious discrimination

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Religious discrimination is valuing or treating a person or group differently because of what they do or do not believe. Specifically, it is when adherents of different religions (or denominations) are treated unequally, either before the law or in institutional settings such as employment or housing.

Religious discrimination is related to religious persecution, the most extreme forms of which would include instances in which people have been executed for beliefs perceived to be heretic. Laws which only carry light punishments are described as mild forms of religious persecution or as religious discrimination.

Even in societies where freedom of religion is a constitutional right, sometimes adherents of religious minorities voice concerns about religious discrimination against them. Insofar as legal policies are concerned, cases that are perceived as religious discrimination might be the result of an interference of the religious sphere with other spheres of the public that are regulated by law (and not aimed specifically against a religious minority).[citation needed]

Religious discrimination in Western countries[edit]

United States[edit]

In a 1979 consultation on the issue, the United States Commission on Civil Rights defined religious discrimination in relation to the civil rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Whereas religious civil liberties, such as the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief, are essential for Freedom of Religion (in the United States secured by the First Amendment), religious discrimination occurs when someone is denied "the equal protection of the laws, equality of status under the law, equal treatment in the administration of justice, and equality of opportunity and access to employment, education, housing, public services and facilities, and public accommodation because of their exercise of their right to religious freedom."[1]

However, cases of religious discrimination might also be the result of an interference of the religious sphere with other spheres of the public that are regulated by law. Although e.g. in the United States the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", in Reynolds v. United States the U.S. supreme court decided that religious duty was not a suitable defense to a criminal indictment. In this specific case a law against bigamy was not considered to be discriminating against Mormons, who stopped practicing Polygamy in 1890.[2]

Similar current issues in the United States are about the policy towards drugs or environmental policy. Practitioners of one branch of the native American religion perceive the regulations regarding the use of Peyote and the eagle feather law in the United States as discriminating. Similar cases can be found in many other western countries.

The Eagle Feather Law, which governs the possession and religious use of eagle feathers, was officially written to protect then dwindling eagle populations while still protecting traditional Native American spiritual and religious customs, of which the use of eagles are central. The Eagle Feather Law later met charges of promoting racial and religious discrimination due to the law’s provision authorizing the possession of eagle feathers to members of only one ethnic group, Native Americans, and forbidding Native Americans from including non-Native Americans in indigenous customs involving eagle feathers—a common modern practice dating back to the early 16th century.

Charges of religious and racial discrimination have also been found in the education system. In a recent example, the dormitory policies at Boston University and The University of South Dakota were charged with racial and religious discrimination when they forbade a university dormitory resident from smudging while praying. The policy at The University of South Dakota was later changed to permit students to pray while living in the university dorms. Another example concerns the Peralta Community College District which threatened to discipline two students when they prayed for a sick professor. The college later rescinded the warnings when threaten with a lawsuit.[3]

In some U.S. jurisdictions legal restrictions exist which require a religious test as a qualification for holding public office, for instance in Texas an official may be "excluded from holding office" if he/she does not "acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being." (i.e. God) [4] thus atheists, agnostics, most Satanists, some Unitarian Universalists and New Age followers, who do not believe in a supreme being would be excluded from public office.

In 2004, a case involving five Ohio prison inmates (two followers of Asatru, a minister of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a Wiccan witch and a Satanist) protesting denial of access to ceremonial items and opportunities for group worship was brought before the Supreme Court.[5] The Boston Globe reports on the 2005 decision of Cutter v. Wilkinson[6] in favour of the claimants as a notable case. Among the denied objects was instructions for runic writing requested by an Asatruer.[7] Inmates of the "Intensive Management Unit" at Washington State Penitentiary who are adherents of Asatru in 2001 were deprived of their Thor's Hammer medallions.[8] In 2007, a federal judge confirmed that Asatru adherents in US prisons have the right to possess a Thor’s Hammer pendant. An inmate sued the Virginia Department of Corrections after he was denied it while members of other religions were allowed their medallions.[9]

Religious discrimination has also been documented in employment in the US, such as an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit alleging discrimination against an Iranian-Muslim employee by the Merrill Lynch company in US.[10]


In Canada, during 1995-1998 Newfoundland had only Christian schools (four of them, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and inter-denominational (Anglican, Salvation Army and United Church)). The right to organize publicly supported religious schools was only given to certain Christian denominations, thus tax money used to support a selected group of Christian denominations. The denominational schools could also refuse admission of a student or the hiring of a qualified teacher on purely religious grounds. Quebec has used two school systems, one Protestant and the other Roman Catholic, but it seems this system will be replaced with two secular school systems: one French and the other English.[11]

Trinity Western University is currently facing a challenge from members of the legal and LGBT community to its freedom to educate students in a private university context while holding certain religious values.[12] TWU faced a similar battle in 2001 (Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers) where the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that TWU was capable to teach professional disciplines.[13]


In Greece since the independence from the Muslim Ottomans rule in the 19th century, the Greek Orthodox Church has been given privileged status and only the Greek Orthodox church, Roman Catholic, some Protestant churches, Judaism and Islam are recognized religions. The Muslim minority alleges that Greece persistently and systematically discriminates against Muslims.[14][15]


According to a Human Rights Practices report by the U.S. State Department on Mexico note that "some local officials infringe on religious freedom, especially in the south". There is conflict between Catholic/Mayan syncretists and Protestant evangelicals in the Chiapas region.[16][17][18]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1979: II
  2. ^ "Polygamy". 2007-07-24. Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Texas Legislature Online". Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  5. ^ Greenhouse, Linda (2004-10-13). "NY Times: Justices Will Hear 2 Church-State Cases". Ohio; Texas; Kentucky: Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  6. ^ "(03-9877) 544 U.S. 709 (2005)". Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  7. ^ "The Boston Globe: Court upholds law on prisoners' religious rights". Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  8. ^ Walla Walla's Suppression of Religious Freedom[unreliable source?]
  9. ^ "First Amendment Center: Va. inmate can challenge denial of Thor's Hammer". 2010-10-30. Archived from the original on 2010-10-30. Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  10. ^ "EEOC law suit against Merrill Lynch". 2007-09-03. Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  11. ^ "The Constitution Since Patriation". 2006-10-03. Archived from the original on 2006-10-03. Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  12. ^ Challenges to TWU law school application.
  13. ^ Legal decision on TWU
  14. ^ "Turkish Minority Rights Violated in Greece". 1999-01-08. Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  15. ^ "The Turks of Western Thrace". Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  16. ^ "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices". 2002-03-04. Retrieved 2012-09-13. 
  17. ^ The requested URL /articles/other/mexico.shtml was not found on this server.[dead link]
  18. ^ "U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Mexico". Retrieved 2012-09-13.