A federal court in Washington recently ruled that a restaurant owner’s comments about a headscarf worn by an African American Muslim provided direct evidence of discrimination. In EEOC v. Starlight, LLC, 2008 U.S. Dist. Lexis 60257 (E.D. Wash. 2008), Harper, a young African American Muslim woman who wore a headscarf for modesty, was hired to work in a restaurant. When Harper later inquired as to why she was refused a promotion, the restaurant owner told her, “It wasn’t about your race, it was more about your scarf thing. You know how people in Ellensburg are? They’re not gonna want to see, you know, a girl like that on the cocktail shift . . . It was a business decision, it was nothing against you.” Harper was eventually offered a cocktail position but refused because she felt the offer was insincere and quit. Harper filed an EEOC claim for religious discrimination. The court, in reviewing the statements made by the restaurant owner, ruled that Harper had presented direct evidence of discrimination.

What lessons can be learned from this case? Although the restaurant owner tried to justify her refusal to promote Harper as a business decision, her comment regarding the “scarf thing” was not only insensitive to Harper but also clearly referred to an item of clothing primarily worn by Muslim women. Therefore, the comment could be seen as one directed at Harper’s religion. It is important to remember that the range of religious discrimination claims go beyond the typical example of an employee who refuses to work on the Sabbath. Religious discrimination complaints also frequently involve comments and/or jokes directed at an employee’s religion. Even isolated comments like the one directed at Harper can constitute direct evidence of discrimination if those comments are made contemporaneously with an employment decision.

With complaints of religious discrimination on the rise, educating your workforce is key. Train your employees not to ask, speculate, or joke about another employee’s religious beliefs, customs, clothing, or jewelry. In the case above, it did not matter that the owner was inquiring about Harper’s headscarf, because she did not “understand the whole Muslim faith.” What mattered was that Harper perceived the owner’s inquiries as animosity towards her religious faith. Also, make sure that your supervisors and human resource personnel are sensitized to and educated about issues that may arise in the context of employees’ religious practices, customs, and clothing. Again, as evidenced by the case above, supervisors and human resource personnel need to know that asking an employee to “remove the headscarf” or to “wear a fancier headdress” is not an option. Finally, as with sexual harassment, be sure that your company has a complaint and investigative process that encompasses religious-based claims.