Religious Accommodation Expected for Employees in Uniform

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Oct 15, 2008
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The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the D.C. region’s public transportation entity, is one of the latest employers being asked to defend the application of its policy on uniforms to employees requesting religious accommodation.

On Sept. 29, 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was filing a lawsuit “alleging that WMATA is engaged in a pattern or practice of religious discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion.

The complaint alleges that WMATA discriminated against Gloria Jones, an applicant for a bus operator position with WMATA and a member of the Apostolic Pentecostal faith, by refusing to hire her when her religious practices conflicted with WMATA’s uniform policy for bus operators.

The web site of the United Pentecostal Church International indicates that female adherents are expected to dress modestly and in such a way that they are identifiable as women.

According to the DOJ announcement, however, it is WMATA’s practice to deny all requests for religious accommodations to its uniform policy regardless of whether reasonable accommodations are available that would resolve the conflict without imposing an undue hardship on WMATA.

The complaint seeks to require WMATA to reasonably accommodate and provide equal employment opportunities for individuals whose religious practices require an accommodation to the uniform policy. The suit seeks monetary damages and other relief for victims of religious discrimination by WMATA.

"Employees should not have to sacrifice their religious practices for their livelihoods," said Grace Chung Becker, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, in the announcement. "While public employers have the authority to require uniforms, they cannot refuse to accommodate an employee’s religious practice when reasonable accommodation is possible."

History Need Not Be Repeated

WMATA might have been able to avoid the complaint had the organization kept abreast of earlier religious discrimination cases and taken steps to anticipate possible challenges to its practices.

Case in point: In January 2003 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that the security company Brink’s would be required to pay $30,000 to Carol Grotts, a Pentecostal who was hired as a relief messenger at its Peoria, Ill., area facility.

When Grotts, whose beliefs precluded her from wearing pants, requested a modification of the standard issue uniform—she requested to wear culottes of uniform material purchased at her own expense instead of pants—Brink's refused her request and terminated her employment.

Brinks was required to pay Grotts’ legal fees and to train managers about Title VII's prohibitions on religious discrimination and the company's duty to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs.

And in January 2008, DOJ settled a related case in which a Muslim guard at the New York State Department of Correctional Services was told he could no longer wear a prayer cap, or kufi, although he had previously been permitted to do so.

The suit alleged that there was no policy in place for the prison agency to review requests for reasonable accommodation of religious practices as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The agency is now required to conduct an individualized review of every request for religious accommodation associated with officers’ uniforms. Denial of a request may be made only after a detailed consideration of the impact of the accommodation on performance of job duties.

The Muslim guard whose case prompted the suit has been permitted to wear a dark blue or black kufi with his uniform while working since shortly after DOJ notified the agency that it was filing a suit.

Guidance Is Readily Available

On July 22, 2008, the EEOC issued a new Compliance Manual Section on religious discrimination under Title VII. The guidance states in part:

“When an employer has a dress or grooming policy that conflicts with an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, the employee may ask for an exception to the policy as a reasonable accommodation. Religious grooming practices may relate, for example, to shaving or hair length.Religious dress may include clothes, head or face coverings, jewelry, or other items.Absent undue hardship, religious discrimination may be found where an employer fails to accommodate the employee’s religious dress or grooming practices.”

“Some courts have concluded that it would pose an undue hardship if an employer was required to accommodate a religious dress or grooming practice that conflicts with the public image the employer wishes to convey to customers,” the guidance continues. “While there may be circumstances in which allowing a particular exception to an employer’s dress and grooming policy would pose an undue hardship, an employer’s reliance on the broad rubric of “image” to deny a requested religious accommodation may in a given case be tantamount to reliance on customer religious bias (so-called “customer preference”) in violation of Title VII.”

EEOC goes on to say that “employers should make efforts to accommodate an employee’s desire to wear a yarmulke, hijab or other religious garb.If the employer is concerned about uniform appearance in a position which involves interaction with the public, it may be appropriate to consider whether the employee’s religious views would permit him to resolve the religious conflict by, for example, wearing the item of religious garb in the company uniform color(s).”

Because religious beliefs and practices vary, as do job responsibilities and uniform requirements, the EEOC recommends that employers make a case-by-case determination as to whether a particular religious accommodation request is reasonable.

The guidance adds that “managers and employees should be trained not to engage in stereotyping based on religious dress and grooming practices and should not assume that atypical dress will create an undue hardship.”

DOJ is responsible for enforcement of Title VII against state and local government employers, while the EEOC enforces Title VII against private employers.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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