Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers from discriminating against employees based on religion. As the EEOC points out, “the law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.”
While the law may not protect folks who pray to flying spaghetti monsters, Title VII can apply to others who are not members of conventional religious groups. As the EEOC notes, “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.”
Last week, the EEOC backed its words when it announced that it had sued a company that provides protective services to federal agencies, alleging it violated Title VII by refusing to allow a male employee to have a beard as a religious accommodation.
Allegedly, despite the employee’s repeated explanations that he did not belong to a formal religious denomination but held a Christian belief that men must wear beards, the company denied his request for a religious accommodation because the employee was unable to provide additional substantiation of his beliefs or a supporting statement from a certified or documented religious leader.
If an employee has a sincerely-held belief, the employer must reasonably accommodate it unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business.
This resonates with what we saw over the last few years during the pandemic when employers questioned the sincerity of employees who refused vaccinations on religious grounds. Even new religious beliefs, if sincerely held, invoke Title VII.
Generally, the safer move is to assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely-held religious belief — even if a newly discovered one. Then, skip to step two and determine whether accommodating the employee would impose something more than a minimal cost on your business. Because if the answer to that question is yes, then whether the belief is sincerely-held doesn’t matter.
But in the case of someone who wants to grow facial hair (or Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish sidelocks) or wear religious garb (e.g., a Muslim hijab, a Sikh turban, a Christian cross), there usually isn’t much burden on the organization to permit it.