The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued a publication entitled "Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace:  Rights and Responsibilities" which discusses an employer's legal responsibilities with respect to its employees' religious dress and grooming in the workplace.

Employers covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are required to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to follow religiously-mandated dress and grooming practices unless it would pose an undue hardship. When an exception is made as a religious accommodation, an employer may still refuse to allow exceptions sought by other employees for secular reasons.

Topics covered by the EEOC publication include:

  • Prohibitions on job segregation, such as assigning an employee to a non-customer service position because of his/her religious garb;
  • An employer's obligation to reasonably accommodate religious grooming or garb practices for employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs;
  • Avoiding workplace harassment or discrimination based on religion, which may occur when an employee is required to forgo religious dress or grooming practices as a condition of employment; and
  • Ensuring there is no retaliation against employees who request or are provided religious accommodation.

The EEOC guidance comes at a time when religious discrimination and harassment claims against employers are on the rise.  In fiscal year 2013, the Commission received 3,721 charges alleging religious discrimination or harassment which is a 32% increase from the number of charges it received in fiscal year 2003.  Additionally, a Muslim-American man from Ypsilanti, Michigan recently obtained a $1.2 million jury verdict after successfully arguing he was harassed, taunted, and discriminated against at work because of his religion.  The increased volume of EEOC claims and large jury verdict underscore the need for employers to appropriately identify and respond to employee requests for accommodation in order to avoid potential legal liability under Title VII.