The EEOC has recently focused the spotlight on employers who refuse to make religious accommodations due to dress code or appearance policies.
In a well-publicized recent case filed by the EEOC (EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch) an Oklahoma jury awarded $20,000 in damages to an applicant for a job after Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire her when she appeared for an interview wearing a headscarf, which she wore for religious reasons as a devout Muslim. Abercrombie argued that it had a strict "Look" policy in order to insure a unified "preppy" brand image.
The EEOC, who has been focusing more in recent years on religious accommodation claims, recently filed a lawsuit against a Taco Bell franchise owner, Family Foods, Inc., (EEOC v. Family Foods, Inc.) alleging that its termination of a devout Nazirite due to his failure to cut his hair was religious discrimination. Nazirites do not cut their hair as a sign of devotion to God.
Although the suit was just filed and no decision has been made, one of the factual hurdles Family Foods will have to get over is the fact that the employee had worked for Family Foods for six years without cutting his hair before the company tried to enforce its appearance policy that required him to cut his hair.
These recent cases serve as a reminder to employers that just because they have a policy that prohibits certain things that could have religious significance like tattoos, piercings, long hair, head scarves, that may not be a reason to deny an accommodation.
Under Title VII, a religious accommodation must be made as long as it does not provide an undue hardship. It can get tricky determining what is an undue hardship under the law, so it is recommended to consult with counsel before making a blanket refusal of an employee's accommodation request.