Question

One of my co-workers confided in me that he is Sikh and that when he asked our employer about wearing a turban, he was told that all forms of headdress were prohibited and that he was not going to grant an exception for him because a turban would make the rest of the staff “uncomfortable.” This sounds like religious discrimination to me, but my co-worker does not want to draw attention to himself. Am I protected if I complain to my employer regarding this unfair treatment?

Answer:

State and federal law prohibits discrimination in employment on a number of bases, including religion and national origin. In general, the best way for an employer to avoid a discrimination claim is to consistently apply all policies to all similarly situated employees. However, in some cases, such as religion and disability, there may be a need to modify policies or practices for specific individuals as an accommodation. In the context of religious beliefs, the employer is required to do so unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) indicates that a religious accommodation poses an undue hardship to an employer if it would require the employer to incur more than ordinary administrative costs, or negatively impact another employee’s seniority rights as guaranteed by a bona fide seniority system. Co-worker opposition to the accommodation, or the fact that the requested accommodation might require the employer to modify an existing policy does not qualify as an undue hardship. In fact, the modification of a dress code to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is one of the most common forms of religious accommodation. According to the EEOC, the granting of such an accommodation does not obligate the employer to grant similar requests for modification of the dress code for non-religious reasons.

Title VII prohibits employer retaliation against any person that opposes discrimination. Even though you yourself are not the victim of religious discrimination, the anti-retaliation provisions would protect you if you spoke to your employer on behalf of your co-worker. This is true even if you do not share the same religious beliefs as your co-worker.
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