Q. Can we require a job applicant to cut his hair as a condition of employment even if he alleges that his religion forbids him from cutting his hair?
A. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers must accommodate any bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employer policy or practice, unless it creates an “undue hardship.” Courts consider three factors in determining whether an employer illegally has failed to accommodate a worker’s religious beliefs:
- Whether the employer’s standard interferes with a bona fide religious belief.
- Whether the employer knew of the conflict between the worker’s religious practices and the employer’s standard.
- Whether the employer could have accommodated the religious practice without undue hardship.
In one case, Rastafarian corrections officers wore their hair in short braids as an expression of their religious beliefs. When their employer told them to cut their dreadlocks, they sued. The employer argued that the standard was essential
to the employees’ safety, discipline and esprit de corps and that inmates could grab long hair. But the employer couldn’t show how the braids were less safe than other permitted styles, such as Afros.
In another case, a worker sued his employer after he was fired for refusing to cut his beard because it would violate his religious beliefs. Once again, the court rejected the employer’s safety argument because it could not provide a single example of how the beard was unsafe.
Those decisions suggest that the courts will require employers to do more than just offer safety concerns to justify appearance standards when members of a protected class are involved. Employers also must show how enforcement of the standard furthers the safety interest.