Employees have the right to wear religious garb to work, within limits. Employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs—such as a requirement to wear special garments or coverings—but only if allowing the accommodation doesn’t create undue hardship for the employer.
Under most ordinary circumstances, for example, Muslim women should be allowed to wear head coverings if they hold the sincere belief such coverings are required of their religion. But if the head covering presents a safety issue, chances are an employer can ban the covering.
The key is to document why the covering is a safety hazard.
Recent case: The EEOC has long taken the position that under most circumstances, Muslim women should be allowed to dress modestly, as their religion requires, including being able to wear a head covering. So when the GEO Group, a private company that runs several prisons, decided to update its dress code to forbid any kind of head covering inside its facilities, the EEOC sued.
The head covering at issue was a khimar, an Islamic scarf designed to cover the head and hair, forehead, sides of the neck, shoulders and chest.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all Muslim women working for the company who wanted to wear a head covering, alleged that making the women choose between their jobs and dressing as their religion required amounted to religious discrimination.
The GEO Group argued that bending its policy would cause an undue hardship by compromising its institutional interests in security and safety.
It classified the khimar in the same category as hooded jackets and sweatshirts. The concern was that contraband could be smuggled in or out of the prisons or that the garments could be used as weapons against employees. Finally, the company explained that the garment made it hard to see who was where in the prison and could possibly be used to conceal identity during an escape attempt.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with GEO Group, reasoning that it had presented clear evidence that allowing the religious garb would be an undue hardship.
For example, at each checkpoint within the prison, the women would have to remove their khimars to make sure they didn’t contain any contraband. That would have required a prisoner lockdown. In effect, an accommodation simply wouldn’t be reasonable. (EEOC v. The GEO Group, No. 09-3093, 3rd Cir., 2010)