Articles Posted in Religious (Title VII)

By Barry M. Willoughby

At our recent Annual Seminar, we discussed, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., an action involving alleged religious discrimination in connection with a refusal to hire that was then pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Attendees at the seminar will recall that the case involved an applicant for employment at Abercrombie who was turned down based on the Company’s “look policy,” because she wore a head scarf.  Although the interview for this position did not involve any discussion of whether the applicant wore the scarf for religious reasons, and/or whether she would require an accommodation to allow her to wear the scarf while at work, the EEOC investigation established that the company’s representatives believed that the applicant was wearing the scarf for religious reasons and refused to hire her on that basis.

On June 1, 2015, as we predicted, the Court issued its Opinion finding that the employer had indeed violated Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination.  Significantly, the Court ruled that actual knowledge of the employee’s need for a religious accommodation is not required.  Instead, the Court found that the test is whether the employer’s decision was, in fact, motivated by illegal discrimination under Title VII.

Can an employee be required to get a flu shot? Employers want a healthy workforce and, presumably, employees do not want to be sick. So a flu shot seems like a good idea. And an offer of a free flu shot for employees seems like a great perk.

But the goodwill-nature of a suggestion always seems to change when a suggestion turns into a requirement. Maybe it’s just the rebellious teenager in all of us that reacts negatively to being told that we must do something. Maybe we all have authority issues. I don’t know what it is about being ordered to do something that seems to set off an automatic negative response.

The real trick, though, is how to respond to that negative response. Push back? Stand your ground and insist? Or give in and abandon your request? This is the question that one employer had to deal with when its employee refused to get a flu shot.

Title VII prohibits employers from discrimination based on religion, among other things.  The anti-religious-discrimination requirements actually require employers to go a step further.  Not only must employers refrain from acting (i.e., from discriminating), but they must also take action in the form of providing an accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs of an employee.  Of course, there are limits on how far an employer must go to make such accommodations. And, like all of Title VII, the law applies not only to employees but to applicants, as well.  religion rastafarian_lion

United Parcel Service (UPS), learned this lesson in a very undesirable way.  Last week, a federal jury in New Jersey found against UPS and ordered it to pay $10,000 in damages in a religious-accommodation claim brought by the EEOC.  The EEOC asserted, and the jury so found, that the plaintiff was wrongfully denied a job based on his religious beliefs.  The plaintiff, Ronnis Mason, a Rastafarian, applied for a job in 2004 as a driver’s assistant but was denied the job because of his beard. 

The company had a policy that prevented employees with beards from delivering packages to customers.  He was, instead, offered a job as a package handler.  In this position, Mason would have worked in a warehouse for a lower salary.  Mason never completed the application process.

Religious discrimination can arise in a variety of circumstances. For example, just recently, we posted about a religious-discrimination claim filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), on behalf of four Rastafarians who had been disciplined for their dreadlocks.  In another, fairly unusual, claim of religious discrimination, the issue isn’t hair-style choices, though.  This time, the problem is with short shorts. image

But not with an employee wearing one.  Instead, the EEOC claims, an employee at St. Louis clothing store, Hollister Co., was terminated when she refused to wear pants or skirts the didn’t cover the knee.  She stated a religious objection to the required uniform on the ground that her Pentecostal faith prohibited such attire.

Apparently, though, the employee had no such religious objection at the time she was hired

Work rules for dress code are not out of fashion just because the season has changed.  Instead, the topic of “What Not to Wear to Work” is as trendy as ever.  So, for those of you charged with the task of enforcing dress codes and monitoring hem lines, here’s a bit of reassurance that you are not alone.   

Four security guards at NYC’s Grand Central Station were disciplined when their “sloppy-looking” dreadlocks did not fit under the uniform-standard caps.  imageThree of the four were suspended for their refusal to comply with their employer’s demand that they come to work “with their hair properly cut.”  The fourth shaved his beard after being told that failure to do so would result in his termination. 

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of the public safety officers against the Grand Central Partnership alleging religious discrimination–the employees are Rastafarians.  The matter appears to have been resolved, though.  The partnership recently agreed to provide custom-made hats to each of the officers so they could tuck in their dreadlocks.

In a recent post, Religious Discrimination & Prayer At Work: Employers Who Pray, we talked about employers who conduct prayer at the start of a business meeting.  The EEOC recently announced that it endorses such conduct, at least insofar as it does not find pre-meeting prayer to be discriminatory per se.  We wondered how many employers would be so bold as to follow this announcement after being counseled for so long that such an idea would be a sure-fire way to land in federal court sued for religious discrimination.  I don’t have any developments to report from the employers but it appear that employees think the idea is ok–so long as they are the ones picking the religion. image

In Minneapolis, Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc. announced that, pursuant to the settlement of a class action lawsuit, it will allow Muslim workers to take short prayer breaks and to refuse to handle pork at the company’s poultry processing facilities.  The lawsuit accused the Work Connection employment agency of requiring Muslim applicants to sign a “pork acknowledgment form,” in which they agreed to handle pork products. It was alleged in the complaint that Somali workers who did not sign the document were not hired.

Gold’n Plump explained that employees will now be provided a 10-minute break in the second half of the shift at a certain time and only in a portion of the plant.  The employees had sought to be granted permission to leave the processing line when necessary to pray.  All employees, regardless of religion, will be granted the break.

The EEOC recently published an updated Guidance on Religious Discrimination.  The Guidance address the issue of religious discrimination in the workplace in a question-and-answer style format, as well as a “best practices” section.  We posted about the EEOC Guidance previously, in Increase in Religious-Discrimination Claims Prompts EEOC to Issue Updated Guidance. eeoc_logo

Last week, John Phillips, at The Word On Employment Law, posted an interesting piece about part of the Religious Discrimination Guidance that I hadn’t previously heard much about.  From the Guidance:

“Some employers have integrated their own religious beliefs or practices into the workplace, and they are entitled to do so.  However, if an employer holds religious services or programs to include prayer in business meetings, Title VII requires that the employer accommodate an employee who asks to be excused for religious reasons, absent a showing of undue hardship.  Excusing an employee from religious services normally does not create an undue hardship because it does not cost the employer anything and does not disrupt business operations or other workers.”

Religious-discrimination claims are on the rise and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.  Nationwide, charge filings with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), have risen substantially over the past 15 years, doubling from 1,388 in FY1992 to a record high of 2,880 in FY2007.

Filings by Muslims increased from 398 to 909 between FY1997 and FY2007–the largest increase of any major religious group during that period.  In response to the trend, the EEOC recently updated the section of its Compliance Manual dealing with religious discrimination. The agency also issued a best-practices guide for employers, including new references to headscarves.  In a related document, the EEOC says,

Requests for accommodation of a religious belief or practice could include, for example: a Catholic employee requesting a schedule change so that he can attend church services on Good Friday; a Muslim employee requesting an exception to the company’s dress and grooming code allowing her to wear her headscarf, or a Hindu employee requesting an exception allowing her to wear her bindi (religious forehead marking); an atheist asking to be excused from the religious invocation offered at the beginning of staff meetings; an adherent to Native American spiritual beliefs seeking unpaid leave to attend a ritual ceremony; or an employee who identifies as Christian but is not affiliated with a particular sect or denomination requests accommodation of his religious belief that working on his Sabbath is prohibited.

An officer of the LAPD has sued the City of Los Angeles and its Police Department, alleging First Amendment violations and religious discrimination.  The officer’s claims are based on off-duty statements he made regarding the Bible’s teachings on homosexual acts. 

The officer, Sgt. Eric Holyfield, a Christian pastor, quoted Bible passages during a eulogy for a fellow officer, explaining that homosexuality “was an abomination” and that persons who engage in homosexual conduct “must repent or be condemned to hell.”

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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.


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. 

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