Can my employer question my religious beliefs?

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Question:

The restaurant I work at recently announced that it is changing its dress code for servers. Previously, we were required to wear long-sleeved white dress shirts, black slacks or skirts, and a vest. The restaurant is moving to a uniform requirement that will include a short-sleeved shirt. My religious beliefs require modesty in appearance, including covering our arms and legs completely. I belong to a very small religious group that some refer to as a "cult," and I prefer not to discuss my beliefs with others. I asked my manager for an exception to the requirement so I could continue wearing a long-sleeved shirt. Because I didn't want to discuss my religion, I told him that I am uncomfortable showing more of my body but didn't tell him why. When he told me he couldn't make an exception, I told him that my religion requires me to cover myself. Now, he's saying that he doesn't believe me, and thinks I'm just trying to avoid the new rules because I have "body image" issues. What can I do?  

Answer:

Employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations in the workplace for their religious beliefs and practices, unless it would create an undue hardship for the employer. However, employers must accommodate only religious beliefs that are sincerely held. It sounds like this is the sticking point between you and your manager. 

In a typical religious accommodation case, no one doubts the sincerity of the employee's beliefs or their nature (that is, whether the beliefs are religious). The argument is over whether the accommodation is reasonable or would be too burdensome for the company. In your situation, however, it sounds like your manager is questioning whether your religion really requires modesty or you are just trying to get out of the uniform requirement for personal reasons. 

When an employer doubts the sincerity of an employee's beliefs, it is often because the accommodation conversation unfolded as yours did: The employee first asks for an exception for other reasons; if that fails, the employee asks for a religious accommodation. The employer is then left to wonder whether the employee's religion is really fueling the request, or the employee is simply trying to find a way to avoid the requirement. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces employment discrimination laws, has listed certain facts that might create some doubt as to the sincerity of the employee's belief. Ultimately, this judgment must be based on all of the facts and circumstances, but the following might indicate that an employee’s professed religious belief is not sincerely held:

  • whether the employee has acted in a way that is inconsistent with the claimed belief
  • whether the employee is seeking a benefit or an exception that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons
  • whether the timing of the request is questionable (for example, because it follows closely on the heels of the same employee’s request for the same benefit for different reasons), and
  • whether the employer has other reasons to believe that the employee is seeking the benefit for secular reasons.

As you can see, the third factor is the one working against you. To resolve the situation, choose a quiet moment to speak to your manager. Explain that you prefer not to discuss your religious beliefs, which is why you didn't bring them up in your initial conversation about the new uniform requirement. Explain the dress requirements of your faith; it might help if you can bring some literature or other evidence to support your request. This proof can take many forms, from your own explanation of the meaning of modesty within your religion to a statement from others who share your faith or who are aware of your religious beliefs. 

If this conversation doesn't convince your manager that your beliefs are genuine, you should take the issue up with your company's HR or personnel department. 

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LA-NOLO5:DRU.1.6.3.20141021.28794