On March 6, 2014, the EEOC issued new guidance (“Guidance”) on employers’ responsibilities with regard to employee religious garb and grooming in the workplace. The guidance covers disparate treatment of individuals with religious beliefs or practices, segregation of workers based on religious practices, and accommodations that employers must make for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs or practices.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits disparate treatment of employees based on their religious beliefs or practices, or lack thereof. This applies to all aspects of religious observance, practice, or belief. The term “religious belief” is defined very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions, but also religions that are new, uncommon, that have few followers, or that may seem illogical or unreasonable to others. According to the EEOC, in order to qualify as a religious belief, a belief must be based on moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong and must be sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.
Employers are prohibited from excluding someone from a job based on discriminatory religious preferences, whether the preferences are those of the employer, coworkers, customers, or clients. Title VII also prohibits workplace or job segregation based on a religious practice (such as religious garb or grooming practices). Employers who have employees with sincerely held religious beliefs that require the employees to wear certain religious clothing or maintain certain grooming habits must provide those employees with religious accommodations for their beliefs and practices.
There are exceptions for religious organizations (as defined by Title VII) and when accommodations would result in undue hardship for the employer.
What kind of accommodations must employers offer with regard to religious garb and grooming?
According to EEOC’s Guidance, once an employer is on notice that an employee has a need for a religious accommodation for a sincerely held religious belief, the employer must make an exception to dress and grooming requirements, unless it would pose an undue hardship. Under this standard, it is not a reasonable accommodation to require the employee to cover religious garb, markings, or an article of faith or to require an employee to refrain from the employee’s religious grooming habits, absent an undue hardship for the employer. This means that, in many cases, an employer must allow employees to wear religious clothing or items (such as a Christian cross, a Muslim hijab, a Sikh turban or kirpan (symbolic miniature sword)), or refrain from wearing certain garments (e.g., some faiths require women to wear modest clothing). Employers must typically permit employees with sincerely held religious beliefs to observe their religious grooming preferences, such as the Sikh practice of wearing uncut hair or beards, the Rastafarian practice of wearing dreadlocks, or the Jewish practice of wearing peyes (sidelocks).
What is (and is not) an undue hardship?
An employer may bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice that actually poses an undue hardship on the operation of the business. Workplace safety, security, and health concerns may qualify as reasons to refuse granting an accommodation. However, the existence of a workplace safety, security, or health concern may require the employer to provide a modified accommodation to protect safety, security, or health, instead of simply refusing to accommodate an employee’s religious belief. The EEOC’s recent guidance includes several examples of when safety, security, and health concerns may or may not constitute undue hardship. For example, if a restaurant has a policy that requires employees to wear their hair short and neat, and an employee has a religious belief that prohibits the employee from cutting his or her hair, the employer may not force the employee to cut his or her hair, but may require the employee to wear his or her hair in a ponytail or neatly held back with a clip as an accommodation. In a situation where a Sikh employee may not trim his facial hair because of his religious belief, and he works in a division responsible for sterilizing instruments, he may be permitted to wear masks instead of trimming his beard in order to prevent the employee from contaminating the sterilization process. The EEOC’s guidance clarifies that employers must accommodate employees with sincerely held religious beliefs by making exceptions to uniform policies unless the exception would pose an undue hardship.
Neither co-worker disgruntlement nor customer preference are undue hardships for the purposes of religious accommodations. Employers may not refuse accommodations to employees based on a perceived customer, client, or co-worker preference, nor may employers place employees with qualifying religious beliefs in non-customer positions in an effort to segregate those employees from customers.
A Word about Retaliation & Harassment
Finally, the EEOC’s guidance reminds employers that Title VII protects employees from retaliation, including employees who have requested a religious accommodation. Similarly, employers are reminded that harassment based on an individual’s religion is prohibited under Title VII. Harassment may include offensive remarks about a person’s religious beliefs or practices, including religious clothing and grooming.