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Deny religious accommodations at your peril

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

In a move that is surprising many, the EEOC has been taking on religious accommodations cases involving obscure and ill-defined religions. In one recent Florida case, the agency won the right to a jury trial for an employee who claims her religion requires her to wear a nose ring.

Recent case:
Hawwah Santiago took a job as a sandwich maker at a Florida Subway restaurant. Santiago, who wears a nose ring, did a good job and was promoted to assistant manager.

Then her manager learned that the franchise rules on facial jewelry prohibited nose rings.

Santiago said the nose ring was a religious symbol, and her managers asked her for proof. She brought in a note from her mother. She asked to continue wearing the ring as a reasonable accommodation. She rejected management’s proposal to cover it with a bandage while at work because she thought that would be tantamount to rejecting her religion.

Santiago was fired when she refused to remove the ring, and went to the EEOC. The agency sued on her behalf, claiming that it would not be a hardship for the company to allow Santiago to wear the ring.

On the issue of the bandage, the EEOC reminded the court of another case in which an employee refused to cover up a religious tattoo because doing so would be “sacrilege.”

The court refused to dismiss the case, concluding that the company couldn’t show a hardship. (EEOC v. Papin, etc., No. 6:07-CV-1548, MD FL, 2009)

Final note:
The EEOC will have to prove that the nose ring is part of a religious practice or requirement when the case goes to trial. But even if the agency loses, the employer will have lost time and money defending the case.

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