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Monday, August 06, 2007

State Department: U.S. Laws Protect Right To Wear Religious Garb at Work

A refugee from war-torn Somalia, Bilan Nur, came to the United States and succeeded in getting a job as a customer sales representative with Alamo Car Rental in Phoenix. As a Muslim, she wore a hijab, or head scarf, during the holy month of Ramadan.

But after the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, her employer refused to permit Nur to continue to cover her head at all, even though Nur was willing to wear an approved scarf with the Alamo Car Rental logo. The company fired Nur in December 2001 -- only eight days before Ramadan ended that year -- and declared her ineligible for rehire.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) -- the federal government agency that enforces U.S. anti-discrimination laws in the workplace -- took up Nur's case. Hers was the first post-September 11 backlash case brought by the EEOC’s Phoenix District Office.

After a six-year battle, EEOC won Nur’s religious discrimination suit. In June, a Phoenix jury awarded Nur more than $287,000 in back pay and compensatory and punitive damages....

PROTECTING RELIGIOUS RIGHTS IN THE POST-SEPTEMBER 11 ENVIRONMENT

President Bush repeatedly has spoken out in defense of religious freedom for all people. “America rejects bigotry,” he said in a 2002 speech. “We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith.

“America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others,” the president said. “Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we’re one country.”

Nonetheless, the years following the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington saw an increase in the total number of cases filed with the EEOC because of discrimination based on religion and/or national origin. According to EEOC figures, the number of religion-based charges rose from 2,127 in fiscal year 2001 to 2,541 in fiscal year 2006.

Of the 2,541 charges of religious discrimination received in fiscal year 2006, EEOC resolved 2,387 and recovered $5.7 million in monetary benefits for the people who placed the charges, EEOC figures show.

To help victims of the post-September 11 backlash, EEOC has a Web site devoted to questions and answers about the workplace rights of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians and Sikhs under U.S. equal employment opportunity laws. It notes that employers are required by U.S. law to provide “reasonable accommodation” to allow employees to practice their religion. That includes allowing employees to work free of unlawful harassment because of their religious preferences and to wear religious garb within safety guidelines.

RELIGIOUS GARB AND SAFETY ISSUES

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says, however, that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s religious practices -- including religious clothing -- if they impair workplace safety, cause co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work or conflict with another law or regulation.

For example, a member of the Sikh religion, which generally does not permit shaving, lost his religious-discrimination case with Chevron USA Inc., which has a clean-shaven policy. The employee’s job required the use of a respirator that formed a tight seal with the face to prevent exposure to chemical fumes, which the company said was not possible with the employee’s beard. The circuit court determined in Bhatia v. Chevron USA, Inc. that the company had tried to accommodate the employee by attempting to find the employee a different but comparable job that did not require the use of a respirator, and that the company’s safety precautions were in line with federal regulations.

Safety issues aside, Title VII says employers must include “modification of grooming requirements” where possible to accommodate employees’ religious practices and dress. [Link]

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