• Does Jobu Get His Chickens?
  • April 8, 2014 | Author: Tami Z. Hannon
  • Law Firm: Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder Co., L.P.A. - Cleveland Office
  • The EEOC Issues New Guidance on Accommodating Religious Practices in the Workplace

    It’s a familiar passage, known and loved by Clevelanders.  In Major League, Pedro Cerrano, played by Denis Haysbert, worships Jobu and prays that Jobu will help him hit a curve ball.  Jobu is apparently an exacting (and particular) deity who demands sacrifices of cigars, rum and chickens.  Prior to a game, Cerrano is looking to sacrifice a chicken in order to obtain Jobu’s favor.  In the interest of meeting the team members’ needs and Cerrano’s beliefs, he is offered instead a bucket of fried chicken to sacrifice.  So would this accommodation be appropriate?  Would Jobu need to be accommodated in a real world workplace?

    The EEOC has recently issued new guidance and fact sheets on religious accommodations.  In the guidance, the EEOC confirms an employer’s duty to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs in the workplace, and more specifically issues related to grooming and dress.

    In the guidance the EEOC confirms that a religious belief or practice can be almost anything - from the beliefs of a recognized, organized religion, to religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, unrelated to any organized or recognized religion, moral or ethical in nature, not followed by others in the same organized religion or even those beliefs which “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”  The definition, in other words, covers almost everything an individual may subscribe to a higher purpose or internal moral compass.

    In addition to being a religious belief or practice, the practice must also be sincerely held.  The EEOC recognizes that certain beliefs can be changing over time, or be sporadically observed and still be sincerely held.  If an employer questions whether an individual’s beliefs are sincerely held, the EEOC permits the employer to ask for information necessary to evaluate any request for religious accommodation.

    As with other types of accommodations, a religious accommodation can be denied on grounds of undue hardship.  The EEOC makes clear in its guidance that undue hardship does NOT include:

    • Discriminatory customer preference, such as a situation where a customer may refuse to do business or deal with someone of a particular religion.  Similarly, it is not a reasonable accommodation to assign someone to a non-customer contact position to try to alleviate this concern;
    • Altering a generally applied policy on grooming or dress; or
    • Altering a generally applied policy requiring an employee to wear a specific uniform.

    A religious accommodation can include:

    • Permitting an employee to wear a religious item underneath the required uniform if that does not conflict with the employee’s religious beliefs, such as wearing a religious medal underneath a shirt or wearing a kirpan underneath a shirt;
    • Permitting an employee to wear clothing which deviates from the company’s uniform, but comports with the employer’s color scheme, such as permitting a Muslim woman to wear a long tan skirt rather than requiring her to wear tan pants;

    In addition, a reasonable accommodation can be denied if there are actual safety, security or health risks posed by the accommodation.  (Sorry, Jobu, no live chickens.)  In these cases, the employer must still consider whether there is an appropriate accommodation that will still permit the employee to observe the religious practices, without posing a safety, security or health risk.  (So the fried chicken is still in.)

    Many employers have rules and policies that may inadvertently infringe on certain religious practices. For example,  police departments have grooming regulations that address length of hair, facial hair and uniform requirements, and specific grooming practices of some religions may result in a conflict with those regulations.  In these cases, it is important to be well versed in religious accommodation issues so that you can evaluate these issues as they arise and determine what may be a reasonable accommodation.  Looking again at police departments, if female officers are permitted to have long hair but are required to have the hair tied back at work, a similar accommodation may be possible for a male officer whose religious beliefs requires him to have long hair.  More difficult issues may arise in regards to religious paraphernalia and dress, such as religious medals (including kirpans - religious swords often work by Sikhs), head scarves, or a requirement that a female wear a long skirt.  For a police department, these kinds of religious practices may implicate safety concerns for an officer, or, in the case of a long skirt, may hamper an officer’s performance to react quickly in a situation.  These kinds of situations must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and I would encourage you to seek legal advice should these situations arise.

    The best guidance for moving forward:

    • Train supervisors to recognize potential religious accommodation issues;
    • Ensure that human resources personnel or those involved in discipline are aware of religious accommodation requirements so that they can evaluate disciplinary recommendations for potential religious implications before applying discipline;
    • Be aware that applying your general policies on dress code, grooming and behavior may be discriminatory if someone’s non-compliance is based on a religious reason; and
    • If you have any questions concerning the requirements to modify a policy or the propriety of potential discipline, contact an attorney to discuss those concerns before taking action.