The case, Boyd v. Cooper University Hospital, is pending in federal court in New Jersey. While it’s just filed and years from resolution, we can use it to learn how an employer should react when a employee dons religious garb in the workplace.
Title VII requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief. This accommodation includes exceptions to an employer’s dress code or grooming policy.
According to the EEOC, an employer may not “automatically refuse to accommodate an applicant’s or employee’s religious garb or grooming practice if it would violate the employer’s policy.”
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. … 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.
There are limits, however, and an employer may “bar an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on workplace safety, security, or health concerns … 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.
While we have no idea how the Boyd case will play out, it nevertheless serves as a great illustration of the need for employers to consider exceptions to dress codes as reasonable accommodations for employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, and the risks that occur when employers skirt this obligation.