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New Guidelines Regarding Religious Dress Code Policy

Posted on April 7, 2014 in Discrimination & Harassment, Employee Rights

Most employers today have a dress code policy.  But what if that dress code policy either requires or prohibits certain articles of religious clothing or jewelry? Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, weighed in on this issue by releasing new a faq and a factsheet.  While the EEOC’s position on these issues is not law, they offer very valuable insight on these issues for employees who think their rights may have been violated. The federal law that protects employees against religious discrimination is known as, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., as amended or “Title VII".  Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees and prohibits discrimination in employment based on a number of protected classes, including religion. Title VII also prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee who complains of discrimination or participates in an EEO investigation.  This means that an employer cannot fail to hire, terminate, demote, segregate, harass, deny reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs, or retaliate against an employee because of their sincerely held religious beliefs.  The protections of Title VII apply not only to the well known world religions, such as Islam and Christianity, but also to other new or less common beliefs.  Furthermore, these protections apply to all aspects of religion, including clothing and accessories associated with the religious beliefs. What this means is, an employer may not prohibit an employee from wearing an article of clothing or jewelry that is associated with a religious belief, even if that item violates a dress code.  For instance, if a female worker of the Islamic faith wears a head scarf as part of her religious beliefs, an employer may not prohibit that employee from doing so based on a no head ware dress code policy.  Conversely, if an employer requires employees to wear hats, but an employee is part of a religion that prohibits wearing hats, an employer would likely have to make an accommodation for that specific employee. There are some exceptions.  First, a religious belief must be “sincerely held”.  This means that an employee must actually believe or adhere to the religion.  However, what level of adherence is required can be a complicated, fact specific issue.  Second, an employer must be aware of the religious belief before any accommodation is required.  Third, if a specific accommodation would require an “undue hardship” the accommodation may not be required.  An “undue hardship” in religious accommodation cases is defined as a "more than de minimis" cost or burden on the operation of the employer's business.  In other words, if the accommodation would require more than ordinary administrative costs, it may be an undue hardship, and therefore not required. Whether an employer is required to provide a religious accommodation or has discriminated against an employee based on their religion can require a difficult, fact specific analysis.  The attorneys at Lebau & Neuworth are experienced in handling cases involving religious and other discrimination in the workplace.  For more information go to: http://lebauneuworth.com/.


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