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What You Should Know: Religious and National Origin Discrimination Against Those Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern

Recent tragic events at home and abroad have increased tensions with certain communities, particularly those who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern.  EEOC urges employers and employees to be mindful of instances of harassment, intimidation, or discrimination in the workplace and to take actions to prevent or correct this behavior.  The information provided below highlights what you should know about EEOC's outreach and enforcement in this area.

Applicable Law

Employers may not make employment decisions-including hiring, firing, or promoting-on the basis of national origin or religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With respect to discrimination against those who are Muslim or Middle Eastern, this includes employment decisions based on prejudices, lack of knowledge about particular groups or religious practices, or avoidance of a religious accommodation.

Similarly, co-workers, supervisors, and customers may not harass individuals because of their religion or national origin or because they are thought to be of a specific religion or national origin. Harassment can take the form of offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, physical assaults or threats, displaying offensive objects or pictures, and interfering with work performance as well as other actions. Employers must guard against workers harassing their fellow employees as well as against managers harassing employees.  Employers are responsible for preventing or promptly correcting illegal workplace harassment.

Employers also must reasonably accommodate religious practices or dress, unless it is an undue hardship.  The law prohibits retaliation against someone who complains about a discriminatory practice, files a charge, or assists in an investigation of discrimination. 

EEOC Enforcement and Litigation

In the initial months after the 9/11 attacks, the EEOC saw a 250% increase in the number of religion-based discrimination charges involving Muslims.  As a result, EEOC initiated a specific code to track charges that might be considered backlash to the 9/11 attacks.  In the 10 years following the attacks, EEOC received 1,036 charges using the code, out of more than 750,000 charges filed since the attacks. Of the charges filed under the code, discharge (firing) was alleged in 614 charges and harassment in 440 charges.  Because the use of the code has declined in recent years, EEOC is re-emphasizing the use of this code for events that may be a result of backlash to the Paris, San Bernadino, or other incidents.

The number of charges alleging discrimination on the basis of Muslim religion and Middle Eastern national origin can be seen in this table, (which may or may not be backlash-related incidents). In addition, EEOC also tracks charge information based on religion and national origin.

Since 2001, EEOC has filed or settled a number of lawsuits alleging discrimination on the basis of national origin and religion against the Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities.

A few recent and notable cases include:

  • EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Store, Inc. EEOC sued Abercrombie & Fitch alleging that the company violated Title VII after it refused to hire a Muslim woman because of her religious practice of wearing a hijab. The Supreme Court agreed with the EEOC that an employer violates Title VII when a motive for not hiring an applicant is to avoid providing religious accommodation, even if the employer does not actually know whether or not the employee will need one. If an applicant proves that one of an employer's motives for not hiring her was that it suspects she might need a religious accommodation, she can prevail on a claim of disparate treatment based on religion, even if she never asked for accommodation during the hiring process.      
  • EEOC and NTW, LLC d/b/a National Tire and Battery National Tire and Battery agreed to pay $22,500 to a former employee and also provide harassment training to its managers. EEOC alleged that the company violated Title VII when it subjected an Arab Muslim employee to harassment because of his religion and national origin and failed to promptly correct the behavior once the company learned of the harassment.
  • EEOC v. Rizza Cadillac et al.  EEOC sued Rizza Cadillac car dealership, alleging that the company violated Title VII by subjecting three Arab Muslim employees to a hostile work environment based upon their national origin and religion. In June 2014, the car dealership entered into a consent decree that required it to pay $100,000 in relief, provide training to members of its workforce, and satisfy other reporting and posting requirements.    

EEOC protects all workers of all faiths who have experienced discrimination based on their religion. Some recent cases included an Evangelical Christian forced to retire after refusing to use new biometric fingerprint screening for time clock saying he believed it to be a "mark of the beast" and forbidden by his religion; Rastafarians and others whose religious grooming requirements conflicted with their employer's dress code; a Seventh Day Adventist who refused to work on his Sabbath; and a member of the Hebrew Israelite faith whose religion forbade him from plucking out a hair for a drug test.


EEOC has outreach program coordinators in offices across the country who meet with groups representing employers and community-based organizations to provide information about discrimination based on religion and national origin.  EEOC has asked each of its outreach program coordinators to reach out to community partners who may need additional EEOC resources at this time.  In December, EEOC's General Counsel, David Lopez, addressed a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, and Humanist leaders at the White House, and shared information on the protections provided by the laws EEOC enforces. 

EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang has issued a statement condemning discrimination on the basis of Muslim religion and Middle Eastern national origin which accompanied two resource documents explaining federal laws prohibiting discrimination against individuals who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern. 

Additional information on religious discrimination includes the following: