Discrimination against people based on their race, religion, gender, national origin, age or other protected status is generally prohibited under the laws of the U.S. However, in some rare circumstances, the very nature of the job requires you to choose candidates based on what are otherwise protected characteristics.
For example, imagine you are a church looking to hire a new clergy member. Obviously, a Lutheran church wants to hire someone who is Lutheran and it wouldn't make sense for them to hire a Catholic. Similarly, the Catholic Church understandably wants to hire Catholics, not Lutherans. Normally, this qualifies as religious discrimination because job candidates are expressly being hired or not based on their religious beliefs.
While normally we want to prohibit hiring or firing based on protected characteristics, in this narrow circumstance, it makes sense to allow employers to effectively discriminate against otherwise qualified individuals. The law allows for these sorts of employment considerations through what is known as a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) exception.
The Bona Fide Occupational Qualification Exception: Overview
In order to use the BFOQ exception, an employer must prove that no member of the group you are discriminating against could perform the job. Using the religious example above, a Lutheran church would argue that only a Lutheran could effectively practice and preach the tenants of their religion and a Catholic would be unable to perform the job due to his or her beliefs.
Courts are very careful to only allow very narrow exceptions to the general prohibition of discrimination against a protected status, and in the case of race there is no exception in case law. The most common exceptions are generally crafted for religion and gender. As an employer, you have to be exceptionally careful, because what may make perfect business sense to you won't be successful in court.
For example suppose you were a retail store that sold the latest fashions to a hip and trendy demographic. Although you may justifiably believe that a pretty young girl would be the best candidate for a sales person, if you turned down an older candidate who was otherwise qualified because they were simply "too old", you may find yourself facing an age discrimination lawsuit. From a court's perspective, there is nothing about the duties of a salesperson that an older candidate couldn't do that a younger, prettier candidate could.
One of the best ways to understand BFOQ exceptions is to look at examples where courts have allowed what would otherwise be considered discriminatory:
BFOQ or Discrimination? Get a Free Claim Evaluation
Even if you are quite positive that a certain type of employee would (or wouldn't) be a good fit for your business, you could open yourself up to a discrimination lawsuit if you're not careful. An employment law attorney can help you determine whether a certain job requirement can legally be called a bona fide occupational qualification. Get a free evaluation of your legal situation from a local attorney.