Are there exceptions to religious discrimination laws?

Title VII and the PHRA prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion. There are, however, exceptions to religious discrimination laws.

Employees should be aware that there are exceptions to religious discrimination laws.

Religious Discrimination by Religious Organizations

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, commonly referred to as “Title VII,” prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion. It also prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, and national origin. It is a federal law so it applies across the United States. Pennsylvania has its own antidiscrimination law which makes it illegal to discriminate against employees because of their religion. The Pennsylvania law is known as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, or “PHRA.”

If you have faced illegal religious discrimination at work, you can take legal action under both these laws, including filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Look into both laws with an employment attorney before you file a complaint, though, because certain religious organizations are exempt from the religious provisions of these laws. For example, if you are employed by a church, you may not be able to file a charge of religious discrimination with the EEOC.

Exceptions to Religious Discrimination Laws on the Federal Level

Not everyone is covered by the religious provisions of Title VII. Exceptions apply when it comes to religious organizations and religious educational institutions as employers. A religious organization is exempt from the religious provisions of Title VII if its “purpose and character are primarily religious.” According to the EEOC, whether an organization is primarily religious depends on:

  • Whether its articles of incorporation state a religious purpose
  • Whether its day-to-day operations are religious
  • Whether it is not-for-profit
  • Whether it is affiliated with, or supported by, a church or other religious organization

This means that a religious organization can prefer to hire individuals who share its religion. For example, a Catholic school may choose to only hire teachers who are Catholic. It does not allow a religious organization, however, to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability.

A ministerial exception to Title VII also exists. Clergy members are generally barred from bringing claims under Title VII and other federal employment discrimination laws. Why? The First Amendment suggests that the government is not allowed to regulate church administration. Government interference with the appointment of clergy can be viewed as a violation of the church’s right to freely exercise its religion.

According to the EEOC, this exception only applies to employees who perform “essentially religious functions,” like:

  • Engaging in church governance
  • Supervising a religious order
  • Conducting religious ritual, worship, or instruction

Exceptions to Religious Discrimination Laws on the State Level

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is an act “Prohibiting certain practices of discrimination because of race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age or national origin by employers, employment agencies, labor organizations…” The exception here comes from the PHRA’s definition of the term “employer.”

According to the PHRA, the term “employer” does not include religious corporations or associations (unless they are supported by government funds) when it comes to religious discrimination cases. Religious organizations are, however, considered “employers” when it comes to discrimination cases regarding race, color, age, sex, national origin, and handicap or disability discrimination.

Talk to an Employment Attorney about Religious Discrimination

The attorneys at KM&A have experience representing clients across Pennsylvania in complex discrimination cases. If you believe your employer violated your rights under either of the above antidiscrimination laws, or if you have questions about exceptions to religious discrimination laws, don’t hesitate to contact us for a free and immediate consultation with an employment attorney. We can be reached in western Pennsylvania at 412-626-5626, in eastern Pennsylvania at 215-618-9185, or by email at