The EEOC Issued New Guidelines on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace

On March 6, 2014, the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission (« EEOC ») issued a fact sheet and a full-length question-and-answer guide providing information on how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices.

The fact sheet and question-and-answer guide is addressed to employers covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII“). Under Title VII, employers are required to take certain measures in order to permit applicants and employees to follow religious dress and grooming practices, even if it is contrary to their general rules. Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees (including private sector, state, and local government employers), as well as employment agencies, unions, and federal government agencies.

Different religions have different dressing and grooming practices, which may include: wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Christian cross, a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, a Sikh kirpan (symbolic miniature sword)); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of wearing modest clothing, and of not wearing pants or short skirts); or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks)).

Title VII provides several protections and contains certain prohibition to prevent employees from being discriminated against based on their religious belief or practice, or lack thereof. Title VII prohibits disparate treatment, workplace or job segregation (employer cannot assign employees or applicants to a non-customer contact position because of actual or feared customer preference) or retaliation and harassment based on religious belief or practices, or lack thereof. Furthermore, Title VII requires an employer to accommodate any employee once he is put on notice that a religious accommodation is needed for sincerely held religious belief or practices and make an exception to dress and grooming requirements or preferences, unless it would pose undue hardship. The guidelines issued by the EEOC highlight the fact that “neither co-worker disgruntlement nor customer preference constitutes undue hardship.” Those determinations should be made by the employer on case-by-case basis.

However, Title VII contains an exception providing that certain employers who are religious organizations are permitted to prefer co-religionists with respect to hiring and certain other employment decisions. It only applies to institutions whose “purpose and character are primarily religious.”

The EEOC guidelines make it clear that “Title VII applies to any practice that is motivated by a religious belief, even if other people may engage in the same practice for secular reasons.” These guidelines will help employers get a better understanding of how they should act when faced with a situation regarding religious discrimination in the workplace. Besides, it also helps employees understand what are their rights and what steps they can take when those rights are not respected.

If you are an employee and you believe you have been discriminated against based upon your religious beliefs or practices, or lack thereof, please contact the Harman Firm P.C.