EEOC Files Religious Discrimination Lawsuit

Everyone’s talking about dress codes.  Pantyhose or no pantyhose?  Flip-flops causing mutiny in the workplace. What not to wear is not just a TV show, it’s regular water cooler talk these days.  A new case filed by the EEOC shows a much more serious side of the dress-code debate–how dress codes can turn into discrimination.

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued Texas business, Champion National Security Firm, for religious discrimination after the company did not hire a Sikh who refused to shave his beard and take off his turban.

The claimant, Sukhdev Singh Brar, applied for a position as a security officer, was called for an interview and then got the job.  Well, almost.  Brar alleges that a company representative told him, “‘I’m going to hire you, but you have to shave and take off your turban.”  Brar says he told the interviewer that her request was against federal law and his religion. 

But she was not dissuaded.  Even after he told her that it was against his religion to cut his hair and remove his turban, she told him that this was the company’s policy and the policy wasn’t going to change.  “I cannot cut my hair. I cannot take off my turban,” he said.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and applicants because of their religion when making decisions about hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment.

The Act also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless to do so would create an undue hardship upon the employer. Flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers are examples of accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs.

The standard for religious accommodations is “undue hardship.”  But what exactly is  an undue hardship? According to the EEOC, “an employer can claim undue hardship when accommodating an employee’s religious practices if allowing such practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs.”  The EEOC goes on to identify some examples of a religious accommodation:

Employers cannot schedule examinations or other selection activities in conflict with a current or prospective employee’s religious needs, inquire about an applicant’s future availability at certain times, maintain a restrictive dress code, or refuse to allow observance of a Sabbath or religious holiday, unless the employer can prove that not doing so would cause an undue hardship.

The undue-hardship standard is substantially easier to meet as compared to the standard used in disabilities accommodations. But, even under a lenient standard, the employer must still have a reason for refusing to accommodate a religious request.  And just saying, “Well, that’s our policy” is not going to cut it.  I’d be interested to know what the company’s defense will be; what will it claim was the hardship?  And the employer may very well have one–it refused to settle (or at least to settle on the terms offered by the EEOC).  Employers stay tuned, the dress-code debate is sure to heat up.

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