Some employers struggle with reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious preferences. Effective January 1, 2013, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) definition of “religious creed” will be amended to explicitly include “religious dress practice” and “religious grooming practice.” “Religious dress practice” includes the wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed, while “religious grooming practice” includes all forms of head, facial and body hair that are part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed. The terms “religious dress” and “grooming practices” are to be broadly construed.
I hold the (perhaps naive) belief that, when most employers violate prohibitions against religious discrimination, it’s often by accident. So I try to provide examples. The HR Gazette provides these:
“‘[R]eligious dress’ means virtually any piece of clothing or accessory that signifies or expresses a religious creed or belief. The most common examples are a hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women), the dastar (the turban worn by Sikh males) or a yarmulke (the skullcap worn by Jewish males). Religious dress could also include jewelry such as a Christian cross, Star of David, or an Ankh.”
“[A]n employer would be required to accommodate an employee’s religious belief by allowing him to wear a beard or long hair in the workplace. Some religions require men and women to shave their head.”
Here are a couple of ripped-from-the-headlines cases to further illustrate:
1. A certain “preppy” store refused to hire a woman when she appeared for an interview wearing a headscarf, which she wore for religious reasons as a devout Muslim. The employer argued that it had a strict “Look” policy in order to insure a unified “preppy” brand image. The jury awarded the woman $20,000.
2. A fast food chain was sued after terminated a devout Nazirite due to his failure to cut his hair. Nazirites do not cut their hair as a sign of devotion to God. The employee had worked for six years without cutting his hair (in fact, he had not cut his hair since he was 15 years old) before the company tried to enforce its grooming policy that required him to cut his hair. The chain entered into a consent decree whereby it settled the case and agreed to pay the employee $27,000, and also to adopt a formal religious accommodation policy.
Employers subject to FEHA must reasonably accommodate an individual’s religious creed. The amendments provide that an action that segregates or hides an individual, either from other employees or the public, because of that individual’s religious dress or grooming practices is not a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious dress or grooming practices.