Discrimination based upon religion is in the news, we said on August 24th, after the EEOC sued a Food Lion store in North Carolina for refusing to accommodate, and firing, an employee who is a Jehovah’s Witness.
The EEOC has just filed three new Title VII lawsuits based upon religious discrimination, with two involving the always interesting issue of accommodating hair and hairstyles if they are part of a sincerely-held religious belief.
“More Hair Than Solomon“
In one case, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel revoked an applicant’s oral job offer which was contingent upon his successful completion of a pre-employment drug test which required a hair follicle sample. The applicant is of the Nazirite sect of the Hebrew Israelite faith, and his religious beliefs forbid him from cutting hair from his scalp, although he was told by US Steel that he could have hair taken from his beard which would be adequate and sufficient. A beard hair sample was, in fact, taken from him but the test was not completed.
The test supervisor said that the applicant “has more hair than Solomon,” and refused to re-test him because he allegedly “created a negative scene” at the clinic. He was not hired.
The EEOC said that “When a worker’s sincerely held religious beliefs can be accommodated without imposing an undue burden on an employer — as in this case — the employer cannot discriminate because of the worker’s religious beliefs and practices. This lawsuit will send a message to employers that the EEOC will vigorously enforce federal law by prosecuting companies which deny equal opportunity to religiously observant workers who seek to adhere to the tenets of their faith.”
In the second hair case, a North Carolina beer distributor failed to accommodate a Rastafarian man who applied for a job as a delivery driver but whose religious beliefs forbid him to cut his hair. He was not hired. An EEOC attorney said that “No person should be forced to choose between his religion and his job when the company can provide an accommodation without suffering an undue hardship. This case demonstrates the EEOC’s continued commitment to fighting religious discrimination in the workplace.”
The third case involved a Michigan car dealership which failed to hire an applicant for a job as a car salesperson because he is a religious member of a non-denominational church. After learning about his religious beliefs, management “expressed concerns” and denied him the job. (It is not clear to us from the EEOC press release just what about the applicant’s religion or beliefs upset maangement).
Nonetheless, the EEOC said that “Some employers need to learn that religious discrimination and a 21st-century workplace don’t mix. The EEOC is here to fight for people unreasonably asked to choose between their faith and a job.”
On October 26, 2013, we recommended an article in the Wall Street Journal (page B1) about the increasing number of claims of religious discrimination: ”Part of the surge comes from employees – Muslims, Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists and others – who were denied requests to avoid work on Sabbath days. Conflicts also have erupted over workers’ appearance, particularly in jobs requiring uniforms, involving food preparation and in image-focused fashion retailing.”
We have blogged many times about religious accommodation issues, which though complicated, cannot simply be ignored or unilaterally denied without making some attempt to accommodate the employee. Many such cases involve time off, but many involve dress and grooming codes — such as these latest three.
While an employer may generally refuse to hire based upon dress or grooming, this does not hold true if the dress, hair style or grooming is a part of one’s sincerely-held religious beliefs, or somehow implicates some other protected class under Title VII. In that case, tread carefully!