Legal Protections for Religious Dress and Appearance in the Workplace

By Douglas Lipsky
Partner

In the contemporary workplace, the expression of religious beliefs, particularly in the form of dress and appearance, can be a delicate and complicated issue. However, religious discrimination can arise when employers challenge or prohibit religious garb and grooming practices. With the guidance of a seasoned employment lawyer, employees in New York can protect themselves from religious discrimination. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at legal protections for religious dress and appearance in the workplace

Can Employers Prohibit Employees from Wearing Religious Garb at Work?

In simple terms, the answer is typically no. However, it is crucial to understand the nuances surrounding this issue. Religious garb, such as hijabs worn by Muslim women, yarmulkes donned by Jewish men, or the Sikh tradition of uncut hair and beards, is more than a mere accessory or style choice; they are crucial expressions of deeply held beliefs. Employers who prohibit or discourage these forms of religious expression may, in fact, be engaging in religious discrimination. As with many legal matters, there are exceptions to this rule based on specific circumstances such as workplace safety or undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

How Federal and New York Laws protect religious dress and grooming practices

Federal and New York state laws provide comprehensive protection for religious dress and grooming practices, emphasizing that such practices are an integral part of an individual’s religious belief and observance.

Federal Protections

At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the primary source of protection. It states that employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their religion. This includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, and the prohibition extends to religious dress and grooming.

Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees for their religious beliefs unless such accommodations would result in an undue hardship on the employer’s operations. In the context of religious dress and grooming, reasonable accommodation could mean allowing employees to wear hijabs or yarmulkes or to keep beards in accordance with their religious beliefs, even if these do not conform with the company’s standard dress code.

New York State and City Protections

New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law take these protections even further. These laws make it explicit that employers must accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practices, which include religious dress and grooming practices. They also state that it is discriminatory for an employer to impose any condition that would require an employee to violate or forgo a sincerely held religious belief, including wearing garments, or maintaining certain hairstyles.

The New York laws also set a higher bar for what constitutes an “undue hardship” on the part of the employer, defining an undue hardship as something that requires significant expense or difficulty. However, understanding how these protections apply to specific circumstances can be complex. It is crucial to consult with an experienced employment attorney to ensure your rights are fully protected.

The Takeaway

It is vital for employees to understand their rights regarding religious dress and appearance in the workplace. These are well-protected aspects of religious freedom, and violations by employers can be legally challenged. The best way to protect your rights is to work with an attorney who will fight to ensure your religious identity is not compromised at work.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.