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Know your rights regarding religious wear at work

Do you know your rights, as an employee, when it comes to articles of your dress that are symbolic of your faith?

Whether you are a Muslim woman that wears a hijab, an Orthodox Jew that wears a yarmulke, a Sikh that wears a turban or Christian wearing a cross, symbols of your devotion can sometimes become an issue when an employer objects. It’s important to understand your rights in this area so that you know when your employer can and cannot limit what you wear.

The basic rules

Generally speaking, your employer cannot arbitrarily prevent you from wearing clothing or ornamentation that is essential to your religious practices. Your employer can require you to remove the item only if it would cause the business some sort of undue hardship in the form of serious difficulty or expense.

For example, an employer could be allowed to require you to remove a crucifix if there is a safety issue that requires all employees to avoid wearing jewelry, even wedding rings, while operating certain machinery. However, asking you to remove a hijab or some other religious item simply because it might alienate a customer isn’t allowed.

The need for accommodation

Your employer actually needs to accommodate your religious beliefs when possible — as long as doing so doesn’t trigger that undue hardship clause.

For example, if you sincerely believe that removing your cross even during working hours would expose you to spiritual harm, you might reasonably request a transfer to another department where you could wear it. As long as such a transfer was reasonably possible, your employer would be required to allow it.

The problem with at-will employment

Because most workers are at-will employees these days, they can be fired for any reason — as long as it doesn’t violate the law. Some employers decide to fire employees rather than make religious accommodations. They simply don’t own up to the real reason they’re doing it. Instead, they’ll claim that the employee was inept or just not needed.

However, the courts are aware that this happens — which is why evidence that the employee’s religion was an issue can end up being part of a wrongful termination lawsuit. That’s why it’s smart to start documenting the issues you have with your employer over religion as soon as they start.

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