Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides employees with a generous array of protections when it comes to religious expression and observance in the office. It forbids harassment or discrimination based on religion, such as denial of promotions. It also requires employers to ensure that “reasonable accommodations” are made with respect to a worker's religious beliefs and customs.
But how reasonable is reasonable? Most forms of religious expression cause no problems in the workplace, but occasionally there are instances where the need to maintain a suitably professional environment can conflict with an employee's desire to obey the demands of their religion. One vivid example of this phenomenon involves the followers of Sikhism, a religion that requires adherents to wear a special kind of dagger, known as a kirpan, at all times—even at the workplace. Not all employers are eager to allow a worker to carry weaponry around the office; but what does that law say?
Sikhism and the Kirpan
Founded on the Indian subcontinent in the 15th century, Sikhism is a religion with around half a million adherents in the United States. Sikhs—followers of Sikhism—who live in the West are sometimes confused with Hindus or Muslims, but in fact their religion is distinct from that of either group.
Sikhs are required to dress in a manner that incorporates a time-honored collection of symbols known as the “five Ks”: kesh (long hair), kangha (a wooden comb worn in the hair), kara (an iron bracelet), kachera (a type of loose undergarment), and kirpan (a curved dagger). The last object mentioned is the one that sometimes causes controversy.
What the Courts Say
As mentioned, some employers have objected to the presence of the kirpan on the jobsite. These controversies have occasionally resulted in court cases. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued several private employers for refusing to allow Sikh employees to wear the kirpan while at work. A 2009 case pursued by the EEOC led to a consent decree in which the employer, the Health Care and Retirement Corporation of America (HCRCA), paid $15,000 to the aggrieved employee and furthermore agreed to permit Sikh workers to wear the kirpan.
Another case, from 2010, resulted in a consent decree where the Sikh worker received $30,000 from their employer, Heartland Employment Services, which was also required to train employees in recognizing religious discrimination.
Furthermore, the EEOC's official statement on “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace” (scroll down for Example 19) strongly supports the right to wear the kirpan at work (as well as other types of religious apparel), provided that the employer would not bear “undue hardship.”
Title VII and Religious Discrimination
It should be clear by now that federal law tends to take the side of workers when it comes to religious observance—even if such observance involves bringing weapons into the workplace. Under Title VII, all public and private employers with a minimum of fifteen employees must abstain from treating workers in a discriminatory fashion on the basis of religious belief. Therefore, employees are allowed to wear articles of clothing in accordance with their faith, and by the same token they can decline to wear items that conflict with their religion. Hair length and facial grooming preferences are generally protected as well.
Workers also cannot be segregated from others due to their religious apparel—for instance, they cannot be removed from a customer-facing position merely because clients may dislike the employee's religion and the clothing associated with it. Nor can employees be required to cover up any symbols of their faith.
Of course, the law goes considerably beyond merely safeguarding the right to wear certain apparel. Any “disparate treatment” of an employee based on their religion, such as withholding of benefits or training opportunities given to others, is considered illegal discrimination. Employees who file a complaint claiming religious discrimination in the workplace must not be subjected to retaliatory treatment (e.g., firing, demotion).
Discriminatory treatment can be justified only if accommodating the employee's belief would somehow impose “undue hardship” on the company. It should also be mentioned that employers have no obligation to extend a specific type of accommodation (e.g., exemption from hair length requirements) to non-religious employees or to those belonging to religions that do not have such rules.