When lights are shining in your face, it's not easy keeping cool and composed. Miss USA contestants are prepared for just about every question asked, but what happens when you end up saying what you really think? Carrie Prejean, former Miss California USA, filed a lawsuit against pageant officials last week accusing them of religious discrimination.

Ms. Prejean lost her Miss California crown in June due to breach of contract for failing to make scheduled appearances. She claims the real reason she was fired was because she publicly expressed her religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

Our country was founded on a belief in religious freedom, but Miss California's firing has people wondering about the freedom to express sincerely held religious views in today's society.  Are people required to leave their faith at home when they go to work or school or speak in public?

Religious Protection in Business Transactions

Many states have laws that protect religious freedom. Prejean sued the beauty pageant group and its public relations firm for religious discrimination under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. This law makes it illegal for California businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion when providing accommodations or services.

Religious Freedom in Employment

Several federal laws also provide protection against religious discrimination.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits most employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and deciding other conditions of employment.

Title VII goes even further to require employers to adjust to their employees' sincere religious rites and practices, unless they cause the employer great expense or severely disrupt their business. In other words: Employees have a general right to practice their religion and express their religious beliefs in the workplace so long as they don't harass other employees.

Religious Freedom in Education

There is a mistaken impression that the Constitution makes public schools religion-free zones. The First Amendment prohibits the government, and school districts, from promoting religion or favoring one religion over another. This prevents public schools from beginning classes with a prayer.

On the other hand, the First Amendment protects the individual or private expression of religion. This means a student prayer group can meet in a classroom before school, a student can select a religious song for a school talent show, and a student can wear religious clothing to school.

Also, Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans religious discrimination in public elementary schools, high schools, and colleges.  This law protects students against harassment for voicing their religious beliefs in schools.

Public Religious Expression

The First Amendment also bars government involvement with a private individual's right to free speech and religious expression. For example, a city can’t refuse to give a parade permit to a group simply because city officials disagree with the group's religious message. However, the First Amendment doesn't apply to restrictions a private employer puts upon the speech of its employees.

Civil Rights to Religious Liberty

Numerous civil rights laws protect religious liberty in a variety of settings. To learn more about federal laws protecting religious freedom, visit the US Dept. of Justice website.  To get more information about protections against religious discrimination in the workplace contact the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My boss and I have had some lively discussions about whether same sex marriage should be legal.  Now I’ve been denied a promotion.  Do I have a legal basis to sue my employer?
  • Do I have a legal right to keep a Bible on my desk at work?  Does it matter that I work in a government office?
  • Can my daughter hand out scripture bookmarks to her public school classmates to celebrate Christmas this year?

Tagged as: Civil Rights, Discrimination, beauty queen, religious discrimination, discrimination lawyer