Our employee wants to wear a St. Christopher medal on a chain around his neck, which is in violation of our company policy since we’re a machine shop. He is claiming religious discrimination, and I don’t even think his faith requires him to wear this.
Generally, employers can’t enforce a policy that employees can’t wear articles of religious importance at work.
Safety, Health Concerns
Employers, however, do have rights when safety is at issue. If the religious article/piece of jewelry could become caught in machinery, such as in this case, the employer can enforce its policy—safety issues don’t need to be disregarded just for the sake of accommodation.
Health concerns can occur even if a piece of jewelry drops into chemicals that cause volatile fumes. Of course, the employer must enforce its policy for all jewelry for people working in the shop, not just pieces of religious importance.
Keep in mind that religious belief has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as “a belief that is both ‘religious’ in the employee’s own scheme of things and sincerely held by the employee.”
Therefore, an employer should not question the employee’s belief. Indeed, one case specifically ruled that the employee doesn’t have to show that the issue itself is a “true religious tenet,” but only that the person “sincerely believed it to be religious in her own scheme of things.”
This issue of accommodating religious apparel or insignia has recently been enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in a high-profile case against Abercrombie & Fitch.
That case upheld the right of a practicing Muslim woman to wear a headscarf which didn’t meet the “look” that the company required.
In most of these cases, exploring alternative solutions is a good idea. The request for a religious accommodation can trigger the “interactive process,” wherein the employer and employee discuss possible ways to honor the employee’s requests.
Sometimes if management is informed of the request and gets more information, options might appear that weren’t considered earlier in the process.
This is an expanding area of the law, as more individuals are involved with religions that have stricter requirements than previously. Before denying any religious accommodation, try engaging in the interactive process noted above, and if that’s not successful, it’s recommended to seek legal counsel.
The Labor Law Helpline is a service to California Chamber of Commerce preferred and executive members. For expert explanations of labor laws and Cal/OSHA regulations, not legal counsel for specific situations, call (800) 348-2262 or submit your question at www.hrcalifornia.com.