Security Guard’s Right to Wear a Religious Headscarf

The EEOC reported a couple of weeks ago:

A Philadelphia-area security company will pay $50,000 and furnish significant equitable relief to settle a federal religious discrimination lawsuit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today.

The EEOC charged that Imperial Security, Inc. failed to accommodate the religious beliefs of Julie Holloway-Russell, who is Muslim, and terminated her instead. Holloway-Russell wore a khimar, religious garb which covers her hair, ears, and neck, as required by her religious beliefs, when she interviewed for the job of security guard. However, when she reported to her first work assignment wearing her khimar, she was told to remove it. Holloway-Russell respectfully refused to do so because her religious beliefs mandated that she wear the religious head covering….

Sounds right to me under existing federal employment law. I discuss the relevant legal regime here, but the basic principle is that an employer must give religious employees special exemptions from generally applicable job requirements if (1) the requirements interfere with an employee’s sincerely felt religious obligations and (2) such an exemption doesn’t impose “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j); TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977). The “undue hardship” standard isn’t hard for the employer to meet — any “more than … de minimis cost” to the employer would qualify as an undue hardship. But here the only cost was letting plaintiff wear the scarf, something that was highly unlikely to impose any more than de minimis cost on the employer. (To be sure, dealing with individual exemption requests always involves some cost, just in processing the request and deciding whether to grant it, but such a cost obviously isn’t enough to warrant denying requests, or else the statutory duty of religious accommodation would never be triggered.)

Indeed, courts have commonly found that employers must give religious exemptions from dress code or grooming requirements, unless this would interfere with safety or with the public mission of the employer (such as a police department that requires uniforms). Thus, for instance, a man who feels a religious obligation to wear a beard is generally entitled to an exemption from an employer’s no-beard policy, absent some evidence that such an exemption would pose an undue hardship on the employer. See, e.g., Carter v. Bruce Oakley, Inc., 849 F. Supp. 673 (E.D. Ark. 1993). A woman who feels a religious obligation not to wear pants is likewise generally entitled to such an exemption, again unless there’s some good reason (such as safety) for barring her from wearing a skirt or a dress. The same principle should apply to this case, especially since the arguments in favor of denying police officers the right to such accommodations — that such a no-religious-headgear policy is necessary to foster public “perception of [the police department’s] impartiality by citizens of all races and religions whom the police are charged to serve and protect” — don’t generally apply to private security guards.

One can debate whether it’s good policy to require private employers to give employees special religious exemptions (or conscientious examples motivated by deeply held secular philosophical beliefs, which the EEOC and many courts have held are likewise covered by the religious accommodation requirement). But that’s the law.