EMPLOYER DUTIES TO FIGHT RELIGIOUS PREJUDICE « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Companies Must Uphold Worker Rights to Religious Garb or Grooming Even if It Means Losing Business

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)  is responsible for enforcing the federal laws prohibiting discrimination in commerce, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nicknamed “Title VII.”   In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the EEOC has fielded a dramatic increase in religious discrimination complaints, 3,721 in fiscal 2013, well more than double the 1,709 charges received in fiscal 1997.  This increasing volume has recently prompted the agency to publish a guide to help employers understand their obligations under this law, “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.”

The EEOC offers several examples of religious dress and grooming practices including “wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts), or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks)).”

Title VII defines religion very broadly, including “not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, 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.”   An employee’s belief or practice can also be “religious” under Title VII “even if it is not followed by others in the same religious sect, denomination, or congregation, or even if the employee is unaffiliated with a formal religious organization.”

Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, when an employer’s dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

It is not necessarily an employer’s discretion to determine just what sort of hardship is sufficient to absolve it from complying with the law.  As has been the critical role of the Civil Rights Act since its creation 50 years ago, the EEOC emphasizes that customer preference – and the potential for loss of business out of customer prejudices against one religion or another – cannot amount to a business’s claimed undue hardship by definition.  Just a company’s concern over public bigotry and backlash from employing a member of a racial minority is never justification for refusing to hire that person, similar concern over public reaction to particular religious garb is irrelevant.

The EEOC offers a striking example.  “Adarsh, who wears a turban as part of his Sikh religion, is hired to work at the counter in a coffee shop. A few weeks after Adarsh begins working, the manager notices that the work crew from the construction site near the shop no longer comes in for coffee in the mornings. When the manager makes inquiries, the crew complains that Adarsh, whom they mistakenly believe is Muslim, makes them uncomfortable in light of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The manager tells Adarsh that he will be terminated because the coffee shop is losing the construction crew’s business. The manager has subjected Adarsh to unlawful religious discrimination by taking an adverse action based on customer preference not to have a cashier of Adarsh’s perceived religion. Adarsh’s termination based on customer preference would violate Title VII regardless of whether he was correctly or incorrectly perceived as Muslim, Sikh, or any other religion.”

Thus Title VII – and its state counterparts, including California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) – in effect direct employers facing such adverse economic impact from customer prejudices to either educate its patrons sufficiently to overcome their fears or hatreds against any particular religion or to forego such customer business.

For more information on this subject, contact attorneys Tim Bowles, Cindy Bamforth, or Helena Kobrin.

May 21, 2014

Related articles:

“New CA Labor Laws 2013: Religious Dress and Grooming and Employers’ Increased Duties to Accommodate”

“Prayer Meetings in the Workplace”

“Accommodating Religion in the Workplace”

“What’s God Got to Do With It?”

“Religion in the Workplace, Have Faith in the Law”

“Reverse Discrimination”