Laws on Religion, Dress & the Workplace

December 3, 2009 12:00 am

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) previously settled a dispute in which a Muslim doctor, who was interviewing for a job at a major medical group in suburban Dallas, was denied the right to wear a hijab. After CAIR sent a letter to the facilities’ president outlining the definition of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the organization vowed to “prevent future misunderstandings” by clarifying its dress policy and training current employees.

Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against anyone because of his or her religion, among other things, in recruiting, firing, promotions, benefits, training and job duties. Federal law states that organizations with at least 15 employees are required to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs, observances and practices of job candidates and employees, when requested, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the business.

What is an undue hardship? According to the EEOC’s updated Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, “an employer can claim undue hardship when accommodating an employee’s religious practices if allowing such practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs.” So how must your company accommodate religious-attire requests? What if a company’s dress code conflicts with an individual’s religious rights?

Below are several legal cases on religious attire and their outcomes. Although general conclusions can be drawn, keep in mind that courts have traditionally ruled on a case-by-case basis.

Public reaction to an employee’s religious dress is NOT generally considered undue hardship. In Riback v. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, for instance, 10-year veteran Detective Steve Riback began observing the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. His undercover work allowed him to wear a beard and baseball cap, but he transferred to a non-uniformed desk job because the assignment didn’t require him to work on his Sabbath. There, he was told he had to trim his beard and that he could not wear his yarmulke “because wearing religious symbols would undermine officer neutrality and erode public trust.” Although Riback’s request for accommodation was denied, a suit was filed and a settlement was reached, according to a Las Vegas Sun report. In addition to a $350,000 award, the detective was allowed to wear a cap and maintain a beard no longer than one-quarter-inch long.

A similar settlement was reached after the EEOC sued Grand Central Partnership after four Rastafarian security guards were disciplined for their “sloppy-looking” dreadlocks. Three were subsequently suspended for refusing to come to work with their hair “properly” cut. In addition to a financial settlement, the partnership has since agreed to provide custom-made hats for each of the officers to tuck in their dreadlocks, reports Delaware Employment Law Blog.

But impairing workplace safety CAN be grounds for religious-accommodation denial. In Bhatia v. Chevron USA, a member of the Sikh religion, which generally does not permit shaving, lost his religious-discrimination case with Chevron USA because of the company’s clean-shaven policy. Bhatia’s work required him to use a respirator that formed a tight seal with the face to prevent exposure to chemical fumes. Because of his beard, the respirator could not be used properly, and the circuit court ruled in favor of Chevron USA, reports DiversityInc.

Similarly, in Webb v. Philadelphia, the refusal of the city’s police department to allow a female Muslim officer to wear an Islamic headscarf while on duty does not violate Title VII, reports the law firm of Jackson Lewis. The U.S. Court of Appeals 3rd Circuit found no religious discrimination, and the department’s dress policy regarding an officer’s uniform as a symbol of neutral government authority stands.