In a case characterized by the EEOC as “post 9/11 backlash discrimination based on religion,” a federal court jury in Arizona awarded over $287,000 in damages to a Muslim employee fired for refusing to work without a head covering during the month of Ramadan. EEOC v. Alamo Rent-A-Car, Case No. CIV-02-1908.
The plaintiff in the case, Bilan Nur, worked for Alamo as a rental agent. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2001, Nur requested that Alamo allow her to wear a head scarf. Pointing to its strict dress code, Alamo told Nur that she could only wear the head covering in the back office – outside of the view of customers. Nur disobeyed Alamo’s directive and wore the head covering at all times. After several warnings for wearing the head covering while serving customers, Alamo ultimately terminated Nur for failure to adhere to its dress code.
The EEOC filed suit on behalf of Nur for religious discrimination in violation of Title VII. In May, 2006, the EEOC won summary judgment against Alamo. The Court found as a matter of law that Alamo unlawfully terminated Nur – failing to reasonably accommodate her religious practice (i.e., her wearing of the head scarf at all times) and terminating her for engaging in that practice. Because the court had already found Alamo liable for unlawful religious discrimination, the sole issue before the jury in June was the amount of damages to be awarded to Nur.
The jury awarded Nur $21,640 in back pay, $16,000 in compensatory damages, and a whopping $250,000 in punitive damages. The EEOC commented on the large punitive damages award by stating that, “We hope this verdict sends a message to the community that this community will not accept religious intolerance in the workplace.”
Employers should take heed – dress codes and other seemingly benign workplace policies can often run afoul of employees’ religious practices. Employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate bona fide religious practices of their employees unless the accommodation would constitute an undue hardship. When faced with an employee request to accommodate religious dress or other requests to accommodate religious practices (e.g., time off to attend services, etc.), employers must carefully evaluate whether they are legally obligated to provide that accommodation, and must consider modifying their standard policies and practices if those policies and practices conflict with an employee’s reasonable request to adhere to his or her religious practices.