You Cannot Wear A Skirt! Revisiting Workplace Religious Discrimination

The newly-announced settlement of a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the EEOC gives us the opportunity to revisit workplace religious discrimination – a hot topic these days.

“Georgia Blue,” a Mississippi restaurant, had a dress code requiring servers to wear blue jean pants.  A newly-hired Apostolic Pentecostal employee, whose religious belief requires women to wear only skirts or dresses, asked for an accommodation – to be allowed to wear a blue jean skirt.

She was told, however, that “‘the owner’ would ‘not stray away from’ the company dress code.”

This cost Georgia Blue $25,000 in settlement of the EEOC’s religious discrimination lawsuit.

Religious Garb

We’ve seen this before – many times.

I said a while ago that cases of religious discrimination in the workplace generally come in two flavors (not always, of course):  employers prohibiting certain religious garb or religious grooming, or discriminating as to an employee’s observance of religious beliefs.  This new settlement involved, of course, religious garb.

In late 2016, I wrote about a company that designs and manufactures automotive brake components, and its staffing agency, which were sued by the EEOC for religious discrimination in hiring.  The would-be employee, who had been made an offer of employment, “is an observant member of the Apostolic Faith Church of God and True Holiness, a Pentecostal Christian denomination. [She] holds the religious belief that she cannot wear pants because she is a woman, and that she is commanded to wear skirts or dresses.”

However, the would-be employer had a dress code policy which mandates that employees wear pants.

Sound vaguely familiar?

Something had to give:  The employer directed the agency not to hire her, and her offer of employment was withdrawn.  Corporate dress policy would not bend to religious beliefs as to dress.

An EEOC attorney said that “We are particularly concerned when the accommodation requested is easy to provide and the employer appears to have reacted to myths or stereotypes about a religion.”

Of course there have been many other cases involving the religious garb of other religious groups.

A New Mexico diner was sued recently by the EEOC for allegedly failing to accommodate a Muslim employee who asked to be permitted to work while wearing a hijab – a head scarf. We’ve also written about this precise situation many times before.

Not long ago, the EEOC settled a religious discrimination case filed against a Florida staffing company for the hospitality industry.  It was alleged that an employee, who was a Rastafarian who wore dreadlocks as part of his sincerely held religious belief, was taken off his assignment and never reassigned because he refused to comply with a client-hotel’s grooming policy by not cutting off his dreadlocks.

Takeaway: employers risk violating the law if they require an employee to choose between job and religion

As to the new settlement, the EEOC regional attorney said that “This case is a reminder that employers risk violating the law if they require an employee to choose between her job and her religion.”

Everyone should know by now that Title VII requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs unless unduly burdensome. 

And accommodations are usually not that costly, or even burdensome.  Indeed, another EEOC official stated previously that “Many times when there is a conflict between an employee’s religious beliefs and a work rule, there are easy modifications to company policy permitting an employee to continue to work without violating his religious beliefs.”

Employers take note.

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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]