I tweeted a story last week about Georgia Blue, a Mississippi restaurant chain that was sued by a female server for failing to accommodate her religious request. The server was a devout Apostolic Pentecostal Christian who has a religious belief that women should only wear skirts or dresses. Georgia Blue’s dress code requires servers to wear blue jeans, so the server reached out to the company seeking a religious accommodation. When the company didn’t respond, the server showed up to work in a jean skirt. She was sent home for a dress code violation and told “the owner would not stray away” from the company dress code.
When I tweeted the story, my purpose was to point out the cost of the consequences; the accommodation would have cost Georgia Blue little to nothing, and now it was facing potential punitive damages. But when I scrolled through the other comments about the lawsuit, I was struck by one in particular. It said “Forcing [a] business to change dress code feels wrong. What if it was a burqa?” It’s an excellent question because the point at which an accommodation becomes an undue hardship can often be very gray. What exactly are the factors, and is there a line in the sand?
A religious accommodation becomes an undue hardship if it imposes more than a minimal burden on a business. Because burden is largely fact specific, there’s no real hard and fast rule. Courts consider a host of factors, including cost, efficiency, safety and impact on the rights of other workers. In terms of dress code, courts have held that employers cannot deny an accommodation based on an “image” that it wants to convey to its customers, but it may deny the request if it poses a legitimate safety concern.
In EEOC v. Alamo Rent-A-Car, a Muslim employee sought to wear a head covering in violation of the company “Dress Smart Policy.” Alamo argued that its policy was important to establish favorable impressions with its customers, but the court held that it failed to show an undue burden because its arguments regarding favorable impressions were too speculative. But in EEOC v. Kelly Servs., the court held that failure to accommodate a Muslim woman's head and neck covering for a job at a printing company was not discriminatory because the company had a "no headwear" policy due to legitimate safety concerns that it could get caught in the heavy machinery.
When faced with a religious accommodation request, employers must be sure to give real consideration to the actual, rather than perceived, impact on their business. Most accommodations will cost nothing and have little impact, like a schedule change or allowing a jean skirt instead of pants. But employers do not have to accommodate requests that will cause demonstrable disruptions or impacts to revenue. Consider each request carefully on a case-by-case basis and only deny those accommodations that create a quantifiable undue burden.