Employers Must Accommodate Deviation from Dress Code When Based on Religion

The importance of making reasonable accommodations to workplace dress codes based on an employee’s religious practices was the focus of a recent settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Essex County, New Jersey. According to the Complaint filed by the DOJ in United States of America v. Essex County, New Jersey, Yvette Beshier, a Muslim corrections officer, was suspended and then terminated because the religious head scarf she wore violated the Essex County Department of Correction’s uniform policy. The DOJ alleged that Essex County’s treatment of Beshier constituted religious discrimination in violation of Tile VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it failed to accommodate her religious beliefs.

The Settlement between the DOJ and Essex County provides that Beshier will receive $25,000 in back pay and interest as well as the removal of any disciplinary history from her personnel file. The Settlement also requires Essex County to distribute a new religious accommodations policy and procedure and provide training to all current correction department supervisors, human resource officials, and employees on religious discrimination and accommodations.

While an employer generally may impose a dress code or uniform policy for its employees, this Settlement is a valuable reminder that accommodations may be required when an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs mandate deviation from the requirements. When an employee requests an accommodation because of a religious practice or observance, an employer must reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious belief by relaxing or modifying its dress code unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer. Importantly, safety and hygiene issues need not be overlooked for the sake of accommodations. As with all requests for accommodations, employers should engage in a good-faith dialogue with the employee requesting the accommodation. Additionally, any employment handbooks and policies addressing workplace dress code should be reviewed to ensure compliance with the law, and supervisors and human resources personnel should be trained to properly handle requests for religious accommodations.

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