Publix Accused of Religious Discrimination for Policy Banning Dreadlocks

A very common challenge to employer dress codes relates to religions that impose strict dress and/or grooming requirements. For example, Native Americans are not allowed to cut their hair and Muslims are required to wear beards and certain types of clothing. Employers’ policies cannot force employees to violate their religious beliefs but instead, must make reasonable accommodations.

What about employment “at-will” states

In states that are considered “at-will” employment states, your boss can make an employment decision based on any reason, as long as it is not considered a protected characteristic, such as your race or gender. What does that mean? Basically, your employer can terminate you for wearing green pants if he doesn’t like that style. What that does not mean is that she can terminate you for dressing or grooming in a way that is dictated by your religious beliefs, depending on the situation.

Allegations of religious discrimination against Publix

The EEOC has accused Publix Super Markets of violating federal law when it refused to accommodate a Rastafarian employee who wore dreadlocks. Since Rastafarianism is a religion, the lawsuit charged the megastore with religious discrimination, or more precisely, failure to accommodate.

According to the lawsuit, when Publix hired Guy Usher, he was told he would be required to cut his dreadlocks to shoulder length. However, Usher informed them that his religion would not allow him to cut his hair. Instead, he asked to wear his hair in a hat. Management at the Publix store refused his request to wear a hat, as well as any other reasonable accommodation. As a result, Usher was forced to resign before he could even start the job.

Religious organizations may be exempt from accommodations

Religious organizations are allowed to act upon employment preferences to members of their own religion, as long as that institution’s “purpose and character are primarily religious.” There are certain factors that are considered in determining whether the entity is entitled to the exemption, such as the stated purpose in the articles of incorporation and the nature of the dayto-day operations. Affiliation with, or support from, a church or other religious organization is another important factor. However, the exemption is not limited to religious activities per se, but extends to employment decisions, as well.

Limitations of the religious exemption

This exemption only allows an employer to show a preference when it involves individuals who share the same religion. It does not allow any religious organization to discriminate in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. In other words, a religious organization is not allowed to engage in racially discriminatory hiring, for example, by asserting that a tenet of its religious beliefs is not associating with people of other races.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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