As a Christian and social researcher, I have heard many stories over the years of religious discrimination in the workplace. Some are compelling and troubling, others are trivial and frivolous. And it seems like the workplace climate may be getting worse: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considered 3,721 religious discrimination complaints in 2013, up from 1,709 in 1997.

But the EEOC drops about four in ten of those complaints—a figure that's remarkably stable across religions. One big reason is that discrimination can be surprisingly difficult to prove. If a member of a social group is treated badly, is it because of their social group? Was he laid off because his boss was tired of giving him Sundays off? Was she reassigned because customers were wary of being served by a Muslim in a headscarf? Were they discriminated against, or do bad things just happen?

I started wondering: How bad is religious discrimination in America, really? Horror stories abound. But are they examples of a systemic problem, or a few bad actors? Do some groups have it worse than others?

My colleague Michael Wallace and I conducted a large-scale field study to test for religious discrimination in one area of public life: the job application process. We found that not only is religious discrimination alive and well, it is so strong that simply adding one word to a résumé—a reference to a particular religion—reduced employer callbacks by almost 40 percent.

What 9,600 Résumés Reveal

We started by creating four résumés, each one describing a fictitious job applicant who had just graduated from college. Two of the applicants were men, two were women. Their names had no obvious ethnic or religious connection. They had roughly similar work experience, with various part-time and summer jobs, and each was involved in extracurricular activities during college—including a student religious group. This is where we made it an experiment: We randomly changed the religious group listed on the résumés.

For example, one résumé listed the applicant as the former president of the "University ____ Student Group." Another listed the applicant as the treasurer of the "University _____ Association." We filled the blanks with one of eight terms. Five of the terms referred to existing religions: "Catholic," "Evangelical Christian," "Jewish," "Muslim," and "Pagan." The sixth term referenced a fictitious religion, the "Wallonian" religious group. (Wallonia is a region of Belgium, not a religion. We did this to test if employers discriminate against a religion that doesn't even exist.) A seventh term was "Atheist," which signaled a rejection of all religions. The eighth term was our control group. Here we simply omitted the blank, thus referencing a generic student group (e.g., the University Student Group). This provided a group against which we could compare the first seven groups.

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After we created the résumés, we went looking for employers. Using a popular job-search website, we identified 2,400 job listings that we thought would be suitable for someone graduating from college—entry-level jobs in a range of industries. We applied to jobs located in New England and the South. (We thought there might be regional variation in how employers responded to religion, but both regions turned up similar results.)

For each job listing, we sent four résumés, one from each of our fictitious job applicants. However, before we sent the résumés, we randomly selected which experimental terms to put on each. So for example, for one job, the first applicant might note having been in a Jewish student group, but for the next job listing, it was a Catholic group. All together, we sent out 9,600 résumés.

Employers could respond to the résumés by phone, by e-mail, or not at all. (Each of the four fictitious job applicants had separate phone numbers and e-mail addresses, so employers didn't know that the applications were from the same source.) We counted how many times employers responded to the résumés as a function of which student religious group was listed. If no religious discrimination existed, employers would have responded about equally often to the résumés, regardless of the religious group listed.

Unfortunately, that's not what hap­pened. Not even close.

Hide It Under a Bushel?

The control group résumés were the clear winner. Résumés that made no religious reference, that listed a generic student group, received about 20 phone calls and e-mails from employers for every 100 résumés sent. This was 20 percent more callbacks than the average of the other seven groups.

The Muslim résumés were the big loser. Résumés that listed involvement in a Muslim student group received only 12.6 phone calls and e-mails from employers for every 100 sent. This was about 40 percent fewer callbacks than the control group résumés. Simply adding Muslim to a résumé decreased employer interest substantially.

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The remaining six groups fell in between the control group and Muslims. Among them, the pagan résumés did relatively well, the atheist résumés did relatively poorly, and Jews, evangelicals, Catholics, and Wallonians were in the middle. (Our New England findings were published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility in 2013; our Southern research was published recently in Social Currents.)

So yes, religious discrimination in hiring seems to be very, very real. Our study seems to confirm a social norm in America: that religious expression should be compartmentalized and private, something kept at home or brought out only in specific, limited circumstances. Publically identifying oneself with a certain belief system can be a faux pas with real and negative consequences. This norm applies to a wide range of religious and irreligious expressions. As such, both the proselytizing evangelical and the adamant atheist are suspect.

If we're concerned about discrimination and want to encourage religious freedom in a secular society, it won't be the evangelical Christian number that we most lament.

Many Christians intuitively sense this norm. We feel that we should be discreet, if not silent, about our faith. This creates a tension, because Scripture presents our faith as good news to be shared, as light to be shown, as salt to be tasted—not a hobby to be hidden. Negotiating this tension between the demands of society and the teachings of Christ is a fascinating, critical aspect of the Christian practice.

But if we're really concerned about religious discrimination and want to encourage religious freedom in a secular society, it won't be the evangelical Christian number that we most lament. The anti-Muslim discrimination we found is both dismaying and probably understated. If we had used names with a Muslim or Arabic association, we likely would have observed even greater discrimination. Furthermore, some employers probably didn't notice the word Muslim (or any of the experimental terms), so its true impact would be even greater than we measured.

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Love Your Muslim Coworker

I anticipate that in the coming years, our awareness of Islamophobia will increase considerably. And it should. Diminishing the life opportunities of anyone due solely to their religious affiliation runs counter to religious freedom. It presents an interesting opportunity for Christians. In our study, we collected no information about the employers themselves, so we don't know if Christian employers are more or less likely to discriminate by religion. Still, it's probably safe to assume that churchgoing Christian employers are among those who discriminate, and that there's a discipleship opportunity here to teach why Christians want religious freedom for Muslims, atheists, and even the nonexistent Wallonians.

It's not just because we want to protect religious freedom for ourselves alone. It's because religious freedom is at the heart of Christianity. We believe that at creation, God gave humans the freedom to choose what and how they would worship. Jesus is reconciling all things to himself, but not through force or coercion. We weren't saved to make special deals for fellow believers but to bless the entire world. Christianity shines bright when it is looking out for the interests of the socially marginalized, and our research suggests that American Muslims are the most marginalized in hiring.

Leaving "Evangelical Christian Assoc­iation" off our résumés would be one clear example of hiding our light under a bushel. But so would be looking the other way when our Muslim neighbors are treated unfairly.

Bradley R. E. Wright is a sociologist at the University of Connecticut. He blogs at about social research and spiritual growth, and tweets @bradley_wright. This article was originally published online May 22.

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