Q. As a law enforcement agency, we have several employees who want to wear religious garb with their uniforms. Our uniform regulations do not provide any accommodation for religious symbols or dress. Can we require strict compliance with the uniform regulation without violating religious discrimination laws?
A. Normally, court decisions on religious discrimination and law enforcement agencies’ uniform policies turn on whether the agency can establish that it would be an undue hardship to reasonably accommodate an employee’s desire to wear a religious symbol or garb.
Courts generally have found undue hardship when a law enforcement agency has demonstrated that:
- What was at stake is the perception of the agency’s impartiality by citizens of all races and religions whom the law enforcement officials are charged to serve and protect.
- Strict enforcement of uniform policies is essential to conveying to the public the values of impartiality, religious neutrality, uniformity and the subordination of personal preference. To do otherwise would be severely detrimental to the mission and operations of the agency.
Law enforcement agencies have shown in those cases that it’s critically important to promote the image of a disciplined, identifiable and impartial police force by maintaining the uniform as a symbol of neutral government authority, free from expressions of personal religion or bias.
Beware, however, that courts may not see an undue hardship if:
- The uniform regulation allows accommodation for other protected situations, such as for a medical condition, impairment or disability, or if it permits officers to wear other “neutral garb” that is similar to the type of dress or accessory being sought as an accommodation.
- The agency has looked the other way when other employees have worn another religion’s symbols or garb.
- The complaining employee proves that other law enforcement agencies have made the requested reasonable accommodations without any misgivings about safety, uniformity or impartiality.