In recent years, the number of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) regarding religious discrimination has dramatically increased.  According to the EEOC, there were 1,709 complaints of religious discrimination in 1997 and 3,721 complaints in 2013.

Employers with 15 or more employees need to be cognizant that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) protects employees’ and job applicants’ rights to observe their religion through dress and grooming.

Title VII prohibits employers with at least 15 employees (including private sector, state, and local government employers), as well as employment agencies, unions, and federal government agencies, from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  It also prohibits retaliation against persons who complain of discrimination or participate in an EEOC investigation.  With respect to religion, Title VII prohibits among other things:

  • disparate treatment based on religion in recruitment, hiring, promotion, benefits, training, job duties, termination, or any other aspect of employment (except that “religious organizations” as defined under Title VII are permitted to prefer members of their own religion in deciding whom to employ);
  • denial of reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious practices, unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer;
  • workplace or job segregation based on religion;
  • workplace harassment based on religion;
  • retaliation for requesting an accommodation (whether or not granted), for filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC, for testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an EEOC investigation or EEOC proceeding, or for opposing discrimination.

It is evident that our country’s workforce has become more diverse.  With that being said, it is imperative that employers provide their managers and supervisors with appropriate training in regard to exceptions to their company’s normal rules on dress and grooming in the workplace.

Below are my 6 tips for employers when faced with an employee that would like to exercise his or her rights under Title VII in regard to religious garb or grooming:

  1. Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or may seem illogical or unreasonable to others;
  2. Religious garb includes wearing religious clothing or articles, such as a Muslim headscarf, Sikh turban, or Christian cross, to name a few.  Protection under Title VII also includes observance of a religious prohibition against wearing certain types of clothing, such of Muslim or Jewish women who have a practice of not wearing pants or short skirts;
  3. Religious grooming includes adhering to certain hair lengths or shaving observances;
  4. The accommodation requirement only applies to religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”  However, it is rare that “sincerity” of a religious belief is in dispute.
  5. An employer may bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on workplace safety, security, or health concerns only if the circumstances actually pose an undue hardship on the operation of the business.  Co-worker disgruntlement and customer preference do not constitute undue hardship;
  6. A religious accommodation that occurs irregularly or only at certain times is still covered under Title VII.

The best thing for employers, when faced with a requested religious exception, is to evaluate the circumstances on a case-by-case basis.