Title VII

November 2, 2010, 12:52 PM

As many of you are aware, Title VII forbids discrimination, among other things, on the basis of religion. The law forbids treating a person unfavorably based on the employees religion in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, training, fringe benefits, and other terms or conditions of employment. It is important to note, however, that the law protects not only members of traditional, organized, religious groups but its protection extends to individuals who have sincerely-held ethical or moral beliefs, so long as the belief system rises to the level of a traditionally-held religious belief. An employer is required to reasonably accommodate these beliefs unless to do so would cause an unreasonable burden on the employers business. This includes the obligation, when reasonable, to make adjustments to the work environment, the work day, or the employees schedule in order to allow an employee to observe his or her religion.

In recent years we have seen employees claim membership in churches that are not part of a traditional, organized, or well-recognized religious group. One that we may see more often in the coming years is the Church of Body Modification. The Church of Body Modification has been in the news recently as a result of a school suspension in North Carolina involving a 14?year-old high school student suspended for wearing a nose piercing that violated the school dress code. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on her behalf, and a U.S. District Judge in North Carolina recently ordered the school district to suspend enforcement of its dress code and allow the student to immediately return to school. The judge ordered this immediate suspension of the dress code because he believed that the student and her mother were likely to prevail in the lawsuit filed on her behalf. The lawsuit claimed that school officials violated the students constitutional religious liberty rights.

Although the recent case arose in a school context, we have also seen the Church of Body Modification in a workplace lawsuit. In 2001, Costco, the warehouse store, revised its dress code to prohibit facial jewelry other than earrings. When a cashier was told to remove an eyebrow ring, she refused to do so due to her membership in the Church of Body Modification. According to the employee, her eyebrow piercing was part of her religion.

The Church of Body Modification was established in 1999. According to the mission statement of the Church of Body Modification:

"We, the congregation of the Church of Body Modification, will always respect our bodies. We promise to always grow as individuals through body modification and what it can teach us about who we are and what we can do. We vow to share our experiences openly and honestly in order to promote growth in mind, body, and soul. We honor all forms of body modification and those who choose to practice body modification for any reason. . . ."

The Costco case was resolved in 2004 without discussion or focus on the legitimacy of the employees beliefs or the status of the Church of Body Modification. Instead, the Court focused on the accommodations offered by Costco, which included wearing a plastic retainer to prevent the employees piercings from closing or wearing a bandage or Band-Aid over the jewelry. Costco argued that it was in its business interest to present a neat, clean, professional appearance, and the Court found that to create an exception for the employees eyebrow ring and other piercings would create an undue hardship on Costco.

The number of ethical or moral belief systems that vary greatly from what is recognized as traditional religious beliefs is growing. Employers face the dilemma of how to accommodate an employees religious belief if it conflicts with standards of grooming or appearance on the job or other requirements of the employer. When such a conflict occurs it is necessary for the employer to first engage in attempts to reasonably accommodate beliefs, whether those beliefs involve the wearing of certain articles of clothing or engaging in certain practices. Many would argue that the bar set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC for determining the sincerity of a belief system has been set fairly low, so employers should avoid getting embroiled in the debate over whether or not a certain belief or practice is truly a religion for the purposes of Title VII protection. Rather, the focus should be on the employers ability to accommodate the claimed religious practice without an undue hardship to the business. --Laura Geringer Gross