This article answers questions about how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers can take to meet their legal responsibilities in this area.
Examples of religious dress and grooming practices include wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts), or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks).
In most instances, employers are required by federal law to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., as amended (“Title VII”),prohibits employers with at least 15 employees (including private sector, state, and local government employers), as well as employment agencies, unions, and federal government agencies, from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also prohibits retaliation against persons who complain of discrimination or participate in an EEO investigation. With respect to religion, Title VII prohibits among other things:
There may be state or local laws in your jurisdiction that have protections that are parallel to or broader than those in Title VII.
Yes. Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or may seem illogical or unreasonable to others.
Religious practices may be based on theistic beliefs or non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities. Moreover, an employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if it is not followed by others in the same religious sect, denomination, or congregation, or even if the employee is unaffiliated with a formal religious organization.
The law’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs. For example, an employer that is not a religious organization (as legally defined under Title VII) cannot make employees wear religious garb or articles (such as a cross) if they object on grounds of non-belief.
Because this definition is so broad, whether or not a practice or belief is religious typically is not disputed in Title VII religious discrimination cases.
Yes. Title VII applies to any practice that is motivated by a religious belief, even if other people may engage in the same practice for secular reasons. However, if a dress or grooming practice is a personal preference, for example, where it is worn for fashion rather than for religious reasons, it does not come under Title VII’s religion protections.
Title VII’s accommodation requirement only applies to religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.” However, just because an individual’s religious practices may deviate from commonly-followed tenets of the religion, the employer should not automatically assume that his or her religious observance is not sincere. Moreover, an individual’s religious beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time, yet may nevertheless be sincerely held. Therefore, like the “religious” nature of a belief or practice, the “sincerity” of an employee’s stated religious belief is usually not in dispute in religious discrimination cases. However, if an employer has a legitimate reason for questioning the sincerity or even the religious nature of a particular belief or practice for which accommodation has been requested, it may ask an applicant or employee for information reasonably needed to evaluate the request.
Eli has been working at the Burger Hut for two years. While in the past he has always worn his hair short, he has recently let it grow longer. When his manager advises him that the company has a policy requiring male employees to wear their hair short, Eli explains that he is a newly practicing Nazirite and now adheres to religious beliefs that include not cutting his hair. Eli’s observance can be sincerely held even though it is recently adopted.
Afizah is a Muslim woman who has been employed as a bank teller at the ABC Savings & Loan for six months. The bank has a dress code prohibiting tellers from wearing any head coverings. Although Afizah has not previously worn a religious headscarf to work at the bank, her personal religious practice has been to do so during Ramadan, the month of fasting that falls during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The fact that Afizah adheres to the practice only at certain times of the year does not mean that her belief is insincere.
No. If an employer takes an action based on the discriminatory religious preferences of others, including customers, clients, or co-workers, the employer is unlawfully discriminating in employment based on religion. Customer preference is not a defense to a claim of discrimination.
Adarsh, who wears a turban as part of his Sikh religion, is hired to work at the counter in a coffee shop. A few weeks after Adarsh begins working, the manager notices that the work crew from the construction site near the shop no longer comes in for coffee in the mornings. When the manager makes inquiries, the crew complains that Adarsh, whom they mistakenly believe is Muslim, makes them uncomfortable in light of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The manager tells Adarsh that he will be terminated because the coffee shop is losing the construction crew’s business. The manager has subjected Adarsh to unlawful religious discrimination by taking an adverse action based on customer preference not to have a cashier ofAdarsh’s perceived religion. Adarsh’s termination based on customer preference would violate Title VII regardless of whether he was correctly or incorrectly perceived as Muslim, Sikh, or any other religion.
Employers may be able to prevent this type of religious discrimination from occurring by taking steps such as training managers to rely on specific experience, qualifications, and other objectives, non-discriminatory factors when making employment decisions. Employers should also communicate clearly to managers that customer preference about religious beliefs and practices is not a lawful basis for employment decisions.
No. Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, when an employer’s dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Fact patterns illustrating whether or not an employer is aware of the need for accommodation appear below at examples 4-7.
For purposes of religious accommodation, undue hardship is defined by courts as a “more than de minimis” cost or burden on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, if a religious accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship. This is a lower standard than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) undue hardship defense to disability accommodation.
When an exception is made as a religious accommodation, the employer may nevertheless retain its usual dress and grooming expectations for other employees, even if they want an exception for secular reasons. Co-workers’ disgruntlement or jealousy about the religious accommodation is not considered undue hardship, nor is customer preference.
Based on her religious beliefs, Ruth adheres to modest dress. She is hired as a front desk attendant at a sports club, where her duties consist of checking members’ identification badges as they enter the facility. The club manager advises Ruth that the club has a dress code requiring all employees to wear white tennis shorts and a polo shirt with the facility logo. Ruth requests permission as a religious accommodation to wear a long white skirt with the required shirt, instead of wearing shorts. The club grants her request, because Ruth’s sincerely held religious belief conflicts with the workplace dress code, and accommodating her would not pose an undue hardship. If other employees seek exceptions to the dress code for non-religious reasons such as personal preference, the employer is permitted to deny their requests, even though it granted Ruth a religious accommodation.
Typically, the employer will advise the applicant or employee of its dress code or grooming policy, and subsequently, the applicant or employee will indicate that an exception is needed for religious reasons. Applicants and employees will not know to ask for an accommodation until the employer makes them aware of a workplace requirement that conflicts with their religious practice. The applicant or employee need not use any “magic words” to make the request, such as “accommodation” or “TitleVII.” If the employer reasonably needs more information, however, the employer and the employee should discuss the request. In some instances, even absent a request, it will be obvious that the practice is religious and conflicts with a work policy, and therefore that accommodation is needed.
James’s employer requires all of its employees to be clean-shaven. James is a newly hired employee and was hired based on an online application and a telephone interview. When he arrives the first day with an unshorn beard, his supervisor informs him that he must comply with the “clean-shaven” policy or be terminated. James refuses to comply but fails to inform his supervisor that he wears his beard for religious reasons. James should have explained to his supervisor that he wears the beard pursuant to a religious observance. The employer did not have to consider accommodation because it did not know that James wore his beard for religious reasons.
Same facts as above but, instead, when James’s supervisor informs him that he must comply with the “clean-shaven” policy or be terminated, James explains that he wears the beard for religious reasons, as he is a Messianic Christian. This is sufficient to request an accommodation. The employer is permitted to obtain the limited additional information needed to determine whether James’s beard is worn due to a sincerely held religious practice and, if so, must accommodate by making an exception to its “clean-shaven” policy unless doing so would be an undue hardship. 
Aatma, an applicant for a rental car sales position who is an observant Sikh, wears a chunni (religious headscarf) to her job interview. The interviewer does not advise her that there is a dress code prohibiting head coverings, and Aatma does not ask whether she would be permitted to wear the headscarf if she were hired. There is evidence that the manager believes that the headscarf is a religious garment, presumed it would be worn at work, and refused to hire her because the company requires sales agents to wear a uniform with no additions or exceptions. This refusal to hire violates Title VII, even though Aatma did not make a request for accommodation at the interview, because the employer believed her practice was religious and that she would need accommodation, and did not hire her for that reason. Moreover, if Aatma were hired but then instructed to remove the headscarf, she could at that time request religious accommodation.
No. Assigning applicants or employees to a non-customer contact position because of actual or feared customer preference violates Title VII’s prohibition on limiting, segregating, or classifying employees based on religion. Even if the employer is following its uniformly applied employee policy or practice, it is not permitted to segregate an employee due to fear that customers will have a biased response to religious garb or grooming. The law requires the employer to make an exception to its policy or practice as a religious accommodation because customer preference is not an undue hardship.
Nasreen, a Muslim applicant for an airport ticket counter position, wears a headscarf, or hijab, pursuant to her religious beliefs. Although Nasreen is qualified, the manager fears that customers may think an airport employee who is identifiably Muslim is sympathetic to terrorist hijackers. The manager, therefore, offers her a position in the airline’s call center where she will only interact with customers by phone. This is religious segregation and violates Title VII.
As a best practice, managers and employees should be trained that the law may require making a religious exception to an employer’s otherwise uniformly applied dress or grooming rules, practices, or preferences. They should also be trained not to engage in stereotyping about work qualifications or availability based on religious dress and grooming practices. Many EEOC settlements of religious accommodation cases provide for the employer to adopt formal religious accommodation procedures to guide management and employees in handling these requests, as well as annual training on this topic.
Yes, if the employee’s religious beliefs permit covering the attire or item. However, requiring an employee’s religious garb, marking, or article of faith to be covered is not a reasonable accommodation if that would violate the employee’s religious beliefs.
Edward practices the Kemetic religion, an ancient Egyptian faith, and affiliates himself with a tribe numbering fewer than ten members. He states that he believes in various deities and follows the faith’s concept of Ma’at, a guiding principle regarding truth and order that represents physical and moral balance in the universe. During a religious ceremony, he received small tattoos encircling his wrist, written in the Coptic language, which expresses his servitude to Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun. When his employer asks him to cover the tattoos, he explains that it is a sin to cover them intentionally because doing so would signify a rejection of Ra. Therefore, covering the tattoos is not a reasonable accommodation, and the employer can not require it absent undue hardship.
An employer’s reliance on the broad rubric of “image” or marketing strategy to deny a requested religious accommodation may amount to relying on customer preference in violation of Title VII or otherwise be insufficient to demonstrate that making an exception would cause an undue hardship on the operation of the business.
Jon, a clerical worker who is an observant Jew, wears tzitzit (ritual knotted garment fringes at the four corners of his shirt) and a yarmulke (or skullcap) in conformance with his Jewish beliefs. XYZ Temps places Jon in a long-term assignment with one of its client companies. The client asks XYZ to notify Jon that he must remove his yarmulke and his tzitzit while working at the front desk, or assign another person to Jon’s position. According to the client, Jon’s religious attire presents the “wrong image” and also violates its dress code prohibiting any headgear and requiring “appropriate business attire.” XYZ Temps may not comply with this client request without violating Title VII. The client also would violate Title VII if it changed Jon’s duties to keep him out of public view, or if it required him not to wear his yarmulke or his tzitzit when interacting with customers. Assigning Jon to a position out of public view is segregation in violation of Title VII. Moreover, because notions about customer preference (real or perceived) do not establish undue hardship, the client must make an exception to its dress code to let Jon wear his religious garb during front desk duty as a religious accommodation. XYZ should strongly advise its client that the EEO laws require allowing Jon to wear this religious garb at work and that, if the client does not withdraw its request, XYZ will place Jon in another assignment at the same rate of pay and decline to assign another worker to the client.
Tahera, an applicant for a retail sales position at a national clothing company that carries current fashions for teens, wears a headscarf in accordance with her Muslim religious beliefs. Based on its marketing strategy, the company requires sales personnel to wear only clothing sold in its stores, and no headgear, so that they will look like the clothing models in the company’s sales catalogs. Although the company believes that Tajera wears a headscarf for religious reasons, the company does not hire her because it does not want to make an exception. While the company may maintain its dress and grooming rule for other sales personnel, it must make an exception for Tahera as a religious accommodation in the absence of employer evidence of undue hardship. In many jobs for which employers require employees to wear uniforms (e.g., certain food service jobs or service industry jobs), the employee’s beliefs may permit accommodation by, for example, wearing the item in the company uniform color(s). Employers should ensure that front-line managers and supervisors understand that if an employee’s proposed accommodation would pose an undue hardship, the employer should explore alternative accommodations.
Yes. Government agency employers, like private employers, must generally allow exceptions to dress and grooming codes as a religious accommodation, although there may be limited situations in which the need for uniformity of appearance is so important that modifying the dress or grooming code would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, it is advisable in all instances for employers to make a case-by-case determination of any needed religious exceptions.
Elizabeth, a librarian at a public library, wears a cross as part of her Catholic religious beliefs. In addition, after church services she attends on Ash Wednesday each year, Elizabeth arrives at work with a black ash mark on her forehead in the shape of a cross, which she leaves on until it wears off. Her new supervisor directs her not to wear the cross in the future while on duty, and to wash off the ash mark before reporting to work. Because Elizabeth’s duties require her to interact with the public as a government employee, the supervisor fears that her cross and ash mark could be mistaken as government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He cites the need to avoid any appearance of religious favoritism by government employees interacting with the public and emphasizes that librarians must be viewed as impartial with respect to any information requests from library patrons. However, because the librarian’s cross and ash mark are clearly personal in this situation, they would not cause a perception of government endorsement of religion. Accordingly, accommodating Elizabeth’s religious practice is not an undue hardship under Title VII.
Gloria, a newly hired municipal bus driver, was terminated when she advised her supervisor during new-employee orientation that due to the tenets of her faith (Apostolic Pentecostal), she needs to wear a skirt rather than the pants required by the transit agency dress code. Absent evidence that the type of skirt Gloria must wear would pose an actual safety hazard, no undue hardship would have been posed by allowing this dress code exception, and Gloria’s termination would violate TitleVII.
Yes, but only if the practice actually poses an undue hardship on the operation of the business. The employer should not assume that the accommodation would pose an undue hardship. While safety, security, or health may justify denying accommodation in a given situation, the employer may do so only if the accommodation would actually pose an undue hardship. In many instances, there may be an available accommodation that will permit the employee to adhere to religious practices and will permit the employer to avoid undue hardship.
David wears long hair pursuant to his Native American religious beliefs. He applies for a job as a server at a restaurant that requires its male employees to wear their hair “short and neat.” When the restaurant manager informs David that if offered the position he will have to cut his hair, David explains that he keeps his hair long based on his religious beliefs and offers to wear it in a ponytail or held up with a clip. The manager refuses this accommodation and denies David the position because he has long hair. Since David could have been accommodated without undue hardship by wearing his hair in a ponytail or held up neatly with a clip, the employer violated Title VII.
Prakash, who works for CutX, a surgical instrument manufacturer, does not shave or trim his facial hair because of his Sikh religious observance. When he seeks a promotion to manage the division responsible for sterilizing instruments, his employer tells him that he must shave or trim his beard because it may contaminate the sterile field. All division employees are required to be clean shaven and wear a face mask. When Prakash explains that he does not trim his beard for religious reasons, the employer offers to allow Prakash to wear two face masks instead of trimming his beard. Prakash thinks that wearing two masks is unreasonable and files a Title VII charge. CutX will prevail because it offered a reasonable accommodation that would eliminate Prakash’s religious conflict with the hygiene rule.
Raj, a Sikh, interviews for an office job. At the end of the interview, he receives a job offer but is told he will have to shave his beard because all office staff is required to be “cleanly shaven” to promote discipline. Raj advises the hiring manager that he wears his beard unshorn because of his Sikh religious practice. Since no undue hardship is posed by allowing Raj to wear his beard, the employer must make an exception as an accommodation.
Mirna alleges she was terminated from her job in a factory because of her religion (Pentecostal) after she told her supervisor that her faith prohibits her from wearing pants as required by the company’s new dress code. Mirna requested as an accommodation to be permitted to continue wearing a long but close-fitting skirt. Her manager replies that the dress code is essential to safe and efficient operations on the factory floor, but there is no evidence regarding the operation of the machinery at issue to show that close-fitting clothing like that worn by Mirna poses a safety risk. Because the evidence does not establish that wearing pants is truly necessary for safety, the accommodation requested by Mirna does not pose an undue hardship.
A private company contracts to provide guards, administrative and medical personnel, and other staff for state and local correctional facilities. The company adopts a new, inflexible policy barring any headgear, including religious head coverings, in all areas of the facility, citing security concerns about the potential for smuggling contraband, interfering with identification, or use of the headgear as a weapon. To comply with Title VII, the employer should consider requests to wear religious headgear on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the identified risks actually exist in that situation and pose an undue hardship. Relevant facts may include the individual’s job, the particular garb at issue, and the available accommodations. For example, if an individual’s religious headgear is or can be worn in a manner that does not inhibit visual identification of the employee, and if temporary removal may be accomplished for security screens and to address smuggling concerns without undue hardship, the individual can be accommodated.
Harvinder, a Sikh who works in a hospital, wears a small (4-inch), dull, and sheathed kirpan (symbolic miniature sword) strapped and hidden underneath her clothing, as a symbol of her religious commitment to defend truth and moral values. WhenHarvinder’s supervisor, Bill, learned about her kirpan from a co-worker, he instructed Harvinder not to wear it at work because it violated the hospital policy against weapons in the workplace. Harvinder explained to Bill that her faith requires her to wear a kirpan in order to comply with the Sikh code of conduct, and gave him literature explaining that the kirpan is a religious artifact, not a weapon. She also showed him the kirpan, allowing him to see that it was no sharper than the butterknives found in the hospital cafeteria. Nevertheless, Bill told her that her employment at the hospital would be terminated if she continued to wear the kirpan at work. Absent any evidence that allowing Harvinder to wear the kirpan would pose an undue hardship in the factual circumstances of this case, the hospital is liable for denial of accommodation.
Yes. Title VII prohibits retaliation by an employer because an individual has engaged in protected activity under the statute, which includes requesting religious accommodation. Protected activity may also include opposing a practice the employee reasonably believes is made unlawful by one of the employment discrimination statutes, or filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the statute.
Salma, a retail employee, requests that she be permitted to wear her religious headscarf as an exception to her store’s new uniform policy. Joe, the store manager, refuses. Salma contacts the human resources department at the corporate headquarters. Despite Joe’s objections, the human resources department instructs him that in the circumstances there is no undue hardship and that he must grant the request. Motivated by reprisal, Joe shortly thereafter gives Salma an unjustified poor performance rating and denies her request to attend training that he approves for her co-workers. This violates Title VII.
Religious harassment under Title VII may occur when an employee is required or coerced to abandon, alter, or adopt a religious practice as a condition of employment. Religious harassment may also occur when an employee is subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct based on religion. Harassment may include offensive remarks about a person’s religious beliefs or practices, or verbal or physical mistreatment that is motivated by the victim’s religious beliefs or practices. Although the law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, such conduct rises to the level of illegal harassment when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment action (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or even a third party who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
An employer is liable for harassment by co-workers and third parties where it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action. An employer is always liable for harassment by a supervisor if it results in a tangible employment action, such as the harassment victim being fired or demoted. Even if the supervisor’s harassment does not result in a tangible employment action, the employer will still be liable unless it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior (such as having an effective complaint procedure) and the harassed employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities to prevent or correct it (such as failing to use the complaint procedure).
XYZ Motors, a large used car business, has several employees who are observant Sikhs or Muslims and wear religious head coverings. A manager becomes aware that an employee named Bill regularly calls these co-workers names like “diaper head,” “baghead,” and “the local terrorists,” and that he has intentionally embarrassed them in front of customers by claiming that they are incompetent. Managers and supervisors who learn about objectionable workplace conduct based on religion or national origin are responsible for taking steps to stop the conduct by anyone under their control.
Workplace harassment and its costs are often preventable. Clear and effective policies prohibiting ethnic and religious slurs and related offensive conduct are essential. Confidential complaint mechanisms for promptly reporting harassment are critical, and these policies should encourage both victims and witnesses to come forward. When harassment is reported, the focus should be on action to end the harassment and correct its effects on the complaining employee. Employers should have a well-publicized and consistently applied anti-harassment policy that clearly explains what is prohibited, provides multiple avenues for complaints to management, and ensures prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations and appropriate corrective action.
The policy should also assure complainants that they are protected against retaliation.
Employees who are harassed based on religious belief or practice should report the harassment to their supervisor or other appropriate company officials in accordance with the procedures established in the company’s anti-harassment policy.
Once an employer is on notice of potential religious harassment, the employer should take steps to stop the conduct. To prevent conflicts from escalating to the level of a Title VII violation, employers should immediately intervene when they become aware of abusive or insulting conduct, even absent a complaint.
Employees or job applicants should attempt to address concerns with management. They should keep records documenting what they experienced or witnessed and any complaints they have made about the discrimination, as well as witness names, telephone numbers, and addresses. If the matter is not resolved, the private sector and state and local government applicants and employees may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
 For further discussion about the definition of “religion” under Title VII, see EEOC Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination (2008) at 12-I-A-1.
 EEOC v. Family Foods, Inc. d/b/a Taco Bell, No. 5:11cv00394 (E.D.N.C. consent decree entered April 2012) (settlement of a case alleging failure to accommodate long hair worn pursuant to employee’s Nazirite religious beliefs).