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Religious Garb and Grooming Accommodations under Title VII

by Martin Salcedo, Esq. - The Human Equation on 3/12/2014
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According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charges of religious discrimination brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act are steadily increasing. These charges often involve religious dress and grooming practices, such as:

  • wearing religious clothing or articles, such as a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban or a Christian cross
  • observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments, such as a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman's practice of not wearing pants or short skirts
  • adhering to shaving or hair length observances, such as a uncut hair and beard (Sikh), dreadlocks (Rastafarian) or peyes/side locks (Jewish)

    Title VII, which protects all aspects of religious observance, practice and belief, defines religion very broadly. It protects not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or may seem illogical or unreasonable to others.

To avoid becoming a defendant in a discrimination lawsuit, employers must understand that Title VII:

  • prohibits disparate treatment due to religious belief or practice, or lack thereof
  • prohibits workplace or job segregation based on religion (including religious garb and grooming practices), such as assigning an employee to a non-customer contact position because of actual or assumed customer preference
  • prohibits workplace harassment and retaliation against an individual who has requested a religious accommodation

Employers must also make exceptions to dress and grooming requirements once they are put on notice that an accommodation for a sincerely held religious belief is needed. Employers with a legitimate reason for questioning the sincerity or even the religious nature of a particular belief or practice may ask an applicant or employee for information reasonably needed to evaluate the request.

Reasonable accommodations are not required if doing so would pose an undue hardship, even when workplace safety, security or health is concerned. Undue hardship is defined by courts as a "more than de minimis" cost or burden on business operations. For example, if an accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship.

It is important to note that customer preference is not a defense to a claim of religious discrimination and that no magic words are required to request an accommodation. Employers should consider every request on a case-by-case basis. Managers and supervisors should be trained to immediately identify and correct instances of unlawful discrimination in the workplace.

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