Chicago, IL (Law Firm Newswire) March 12, 2013 – Religious discrimination does not apply to everything in a workplace.
“In EEOC v. The GEO Group, No. 09-3093, 3rd Cir., 2010, a safety issue arose in a workplace that triggered a religious discrimination lawsuit. The main ratio decidendi of the case was that workers do have the right to wear religious garments to work, but that there are limits,” outlined Timothy Coffey, a Chicago employment lawyer and principal attorney for The Coffey Law Office, P. C., an employment litigation firm dedicated to representing employees in the workplace. “Many feel that they have the ‘absolute right’ to wear such garments, no matter where they work. That is not the case.”
The bottom line in this case was that an employer must make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to wear religious clothing, according to their beliefs, for instance, a special head covering. However, the employer is only obligated to make accommodations that do not create undue hardship for the company or place of employment.
“In this case, a private company, GEO Group, runs several prisons that employ Muslim women. When they updated their dress code, they banned any kind of head covering inside its prisons. The EEOC sued, as it was their position that Muslim women should be allowed to dress according to their religion, including the requirement to wear a head covering; a khimar. This garment covers the head, forehead, sides of the neck, chest and shoulders,” Coffey explained.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all the Muslim women working for GEO Group on the basis that forcing them to choose between their jobs and their accepted way of dressing was religious discrimination. The defendant’s rebuttal at trial was that changing its policy compromised safety and security in their prisons. The key point made was that the khimar is similar to a sweatshirt, or hoodie, and that contraband could be smuggled in or out of the prison, that such garments could be used as weapons, and that they could be used to hide someone’s identity during a prison break.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals found for the defendant, stating they had demonstrated clear reasons why religious head coverings could pose an undue hardship to safety and security. The cited example in court involved prison checkpoints, where woman have to remove their head covering to make sure they were not smuggling something in or out of the prison. The checkpoint procedure requires a prisoner lockdown; a hardship to conduct frequently during the day.
“In the final analysis, the court said Muslim women, in most ordinary circumstances, should be allowed to wear khimars. However, if the khimar may compromise safety and security, the employer may have the right to ban them. Not all cases may be the same,” indicated Coffey,” because each case would have a different set of circumstances. It is the case taken as a whole and the evidence presented that governs the judgment.”
Timothy Coffey is a Chicago employment lawyer and principal attorney for The Coffey Law Office, P. C., an employment litigation firm dedicated to representing employees in the workplace. To learn more or to contact a Chicago employment attorney, visit http://www.employmentlawcounsel.com
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