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Hair today or gone tomorrow: It’s up to employee to mention religion

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

When it comes to accommodating religious practices, employers aren’t required to be clairvoyant. If an employee wants you to accommodate a religious practice or objects to a work rule because it interferes with his or her right to practice religion, the employee has to let you know how practicing the religion precludes following the rule.

In other words, employers aren’t expected to know the ins and outs of every religion, no matter how obscure.

Recent case: Jackie Collins, who is a Pentecostal, wore her hair quite long. When her employer received an anonymous letter accusing Collins and several others of drug use, she agreed to a urine screen. The drug test was negative.

But another employee tested positive, leading the employer to ask everyone for a hair sample. Collins refused, telling her supervisor, “You know I don’t cut my hair.” But she never said why. Collins was fired for insubordination because she wouldn’t give a hair sample.

That’s when she sued under the Texas Labor Code’s religious discrimination provisions. The trial court dismissed her case and ordered her to pay the employer’s legal fees. It ruled her complaint was frivolous. She appealed.

But the Court of Appeals of Texas refused to reverse the decision. It reasoned that Collins never told her supervisors why she refused to give a hair sample and she never mentioned a religious objection. Although her supervisor may have realized Collins kept her hair long and that many other Pentecostal women also did, there was no reason to believe her supervisor knew it was because Collins’ religion forbids hair cutting. It was up to Collins to specifically raise a religious objection to providing the hair sample. (Collins v. Tarrant Appraisal District, No. 2-06-176, Court of Appeals of Texas, Second Division, 2007)

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