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When Your Employer Must (and When It May Not) Accommodate Your Grooming or Dressing Habits Based in Religious Requirements

Many religions have various requirements when it comes to how followers dress and/or groom themselves. Some people wear dreadlocks because they observe the Rastafarian religion, some people wear a burqa because of their Islamic faith, some wear peyos in observance of their orthodox Jewish religion and still others wear beards because they are Sikhs. So, what happens when your employer tells you that, because of some business necessity, you cannot observe that clothing/grooming requirement that is an important part of the practice of your religion? Depending on the specific facts of your religious observance and your workplace, your employer’s rule may constitute illegal religious discrimination, in violation of the Law Against Discrimination. If your employer has told you that you cannot dress or groom yourself in a manner consistent with your religious faith, be sure to contact an experienced New Jersey discrimination attorney right away to find out if your employer’s actions are a violation of the law, and what that might mean for you.

To see an example of how this process can play out for an employee, look at a recent case that originated in Union County. M.R. was a man who practiced the Jewish religion. M.R.’s branch of his religion taught that men were prohibited from shaving their heads or their faces. This was not a problem until the summer of 2016, when M.R. became interested in becoming a state corrections officer. The corrections officers’ training program required all trainees to shave their faces and their heads. M.R.s sought a religious accommodation, and attached a statement from an elder in his church explaining the “no shaving” rule.

A week later, M.R. showed up at the training academy. He was told that his request for an accommodation had been denied, and was subsequently dismissed from the training because he was not properly shaven.

So, based on that adverse employment action by the Department of Corrections, the man sued the state for religious discrimination. When you sue, you have to show that you were a member of a protected group, that your employer took an adverse action against you and that the action was the result of your membership in that protected group. M.R. was a member of a Jewish sect, was dismissed from the training academy due to his grooming practices, which were based in the teachings of his religion. This meant M.R. demonstrated all three requirements.

Your employer is required to make a ‘bona fide’ effort to accommodate your faith

Even if you have all three requirements, the employer can still win if accommodating you would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer, which is what the department argued in M.R.’s case. When your employer makes such an assertion, there are certain things it must do. As the Appellate Division ruled in reviving M.R.’s discrimination case, the Law Against Discrimination “requires the employer to demonstrate both (1) a bona fide effort to accommodate; and (2) that an accommodation would cause an undue hardship.” If the employer cannot demonstrate both of these things, then it cannot defeat your discrimination claim on the basis of an “undue hardship” assertion.

The Department of Corrections’ proof on these two essential points was insufficient, which is why the appeals court reversed the lower court and revived the man’s case.

If you have suffered religious discrimination in your job, whether it relates to your dress, your grooming or some other issue, your employer may have violated the law and you may a claim for damages. Talk to the knowledgeable New Jersey discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to find out more about your options. Reach us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and to find out how we can help you.

More blog posts:

Your Rights in New Jersey If You Have Suffered Workplace Discrimination Based Upon Your Jewish Heritage or Faith (Actual or Perceived), New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, July 19, 2018

Federal Appeals Court Explains What Can Qualify as a Religion for the Purposes of an Anti-Discrimination Claim, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, Jan. 5, 2018


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