The contents of this document do not have the force and effect of law and are not meant to bind the public in any way. This document is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law or agency policies.
This publication by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) answers questions about how federal employment discrimination law applies to religious dress and grooming practices, and what steps employers can take to meet their legal responsibilities in this area.
Examples of religious dress and grooming practices include wearing religious clothing or articles (e.g., a Muslim hijab (headscarf), a Sikh turban, or a Christian cross); observing a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (e.g., a Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, or Orthodox Jewish woman’s practice of not wearing pants or short skirts), or adhering to shaving or hair length observances (e.g., Sikh uncut hair and beard, Rastafarian dreadlocks, or Jewish peyes (sidelocks)).
In most instances, employers are required by federal law to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences to permit applicants and employees to observe religious dress and grooming practices.
- What is the federal law relating to religious dress and grooming in the workplace?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., as amended (“Title VII”),prohibits employers with at least 15 employees (including private sector, state, and local government employers), as well as employment agencies, unions, and federal government agencies, from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also prohibits retaliation against persons who complain of discrimination or participate in an EEO investigation. With respect to religion, Title VII prohibits among other things:
disparate treatment based on religion in recruitment, hiring, promotion, benefits, training, job duties, termination, or any other aspect of employment (except that “religious organizations” as defined under Title VII are permitted to prefer members of their own religion in deciding whom to employ);
denial of reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious practices, unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer;
workplace or job segregation based on religion;
workplace harassment based on religion;
retaliation for requesting an accommodation (whether or not granted), for filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC, for testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an EEOC investigation or EEO proceeding, or for opposing discrimination.
There may be state or local laws in your jurisdiction that have protections that are parallel to or broader than those in Title VII.
- Does Title VII apply to all aspects of religious practice or belief?
Yes. Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and defines religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or may seem illogical or unreasonable to others.
Religious practices may be based on theistic beliefs or non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities. Moreover, an employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if it is not followed by others in the same religious sect, denomination, or congregation, or even if the employee is unaffiliated with a formal religious organization.
The law’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs. For example, an employer that is not a religious organization (as legally defined under Title VII) cannot make employees wear religious garb or articles (such as a cross) if they object on grounds of non-belief.
Because this definition is so broad, whether or not a practice or belief is religious typically is not disputed in Title VII religious discrimination cases.
- Does the law apply to dress or grooming practices that are religious for an applicant or employee, even if other people engage in the same practice for non-religious reasons?
Yes. Title VII applies to any practice that is motivated by a religious belief, even if other people may engage in the same practice for secular reasons. However, if a dress or grooming practice is a personal preference, for example, where it is worn for fashion rather than for religious reasons, it does not come under Title VII’s religion protections.
- What if an employer questions whether the applicant’s or employee’s asserted religious practice is sincerely held?
Title VII’s accommodation requirement only applies to religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.” However, just because an individual’s religious practices may deviate from commonly-followed tenets of the religion, the employer should not automatically assume that his or her religious observance is not sincere. Moreover, an individual’s religious beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time, yet may nevertheless be sincerely held. Therefore, like the “religious” nature of a belief or practice, the “sincerity” of an employee’s stated religious belief is usually not in dispute in religious discrimination cases. However, if an employer has a legitimate reason for questioning the sincerity or even the religious nature of a particular belief or practice for which accommodation has been requested, it may ask an applicant or employee for information reasonably needed to evaluate the request.
Eli has been working at the Burger Hut for two years. While in the past he has always worn his hair short, he has recently let it grow longer. When his manager advises him that the company has a policy requiring male employees to wear their hair short, Eli explains that he is a newly practicing Nazirite and now adheres to religious beliefs that include not cutting his hair. Eli’s observance can be sincerely held even though it is recently adopted.
Observance That Only Occurs at Certain Times or Irregularly
Afizah is a Muslim woman who has been employed as a bank teller at the ABC Savings & Loan for six months. The bank has a dress code prohibiting tellers from wearing any head coverings. Although Afizah has not previously worn a religious headscarf to work at the bank, her personal religious practice has been to do so during Ramadan, the month of fasting that falls during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The fact that Afizah adheres to the practice only at certain times of the year does not mean that her belief is insincere.
- Can an employer exclude someone from a position because of discriminatory customer preference?
No. If an employer takes an action based on the discriminatory religious preferences of others, including customers, clients, or co-workers, the employer is unlawfully discriminating in employment based on religion. Customer preference is not a defense to a claim of discrimination.
Employment Decision Based on Customer Preference
Adarsh, who wears a turban as part of his Sikh religion, is hired to work at the counter in a coffee shop. A few weeks after Adarsh begins working, the manager notices that the work crew from the construction site near the shop no longer comes in for coffee in the mornings. When the manager makes inquiries, the crew complains that Adarsh, whom they mistakenly believe is Muslim, makes them uncomfortable in light of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The manager tells Adarsh that he will be terminated because the coffee shop is losing the construction crew’s business. The manager has subjected Adarsh to unlawful religious discrimination by taking an adverse action based on customer preference not to have a cashier of Adarsh’s perceived religion. Adarsh’s termination based on customer preference would violate Title VII regardless of whether he was correctly or incorrectly perceived as Muslim, Sikh, or any other religion.
Employers may be able to prevent this type of religious discrimination from occurring by taking steps such as training managers to rely on specific experience, qualifications, and other objective, non-discriminatory factors when making employment decisions. Employers should also communicate clearly to managers that customer preference about religious beliefs and practices is not a lawful basis for employment decisions.
- May an employer automatically refuse to accommodate an applicant’s or employee’s religious garb or grooming practice if it would violate the employer’s policy or preference regarding how employees should look?
No. Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Therefore, when an employer’s dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Fact patterns illustrating whether or not an employer is aware of the need for accommodation appear below at examples 4-7.
For purposes of religious accommodation, undue hardship is defined by courts as a “more than de minimis” cost or burden on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, if a religious accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship. This is a lower standard than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) undue hardship defense to disability accommodation.
When an exception is made as a religious accommodation, the employer may nevertheless retain its usual dress and grooming expectations for other employees, even if they want an exception for secular reasons. Co-workers’ disgruntlement or jealousy about the religious accommodation is not considered undue hardship, nor is customer preference.
Exception to Uniform Policy as a Religious Accommodation
Based on her religious beliefs, Ruth adheres to modest dress. She is hired as a front desk attendant at a sports club, where her duties consist of checking members’ identification badges as they enter the facility. The club manager advises Ruth that the club has a dress code requiring all employees to wear white tennis shorts and a polo shirt with the facility logo. Ruth requests permission as a religious accommodation to wear a long white skirt with the required shirt, instead of wearing shorts. The club grants her request, because Ruth’s sincerely held religious belief conflicts with the workplace dress code, and accommodating her would not pose an undue hardship. If other employees seek exceptions to the dress code for non-religious reasons such as personal preference, the employer is permitted to deny their requests, even though it granted Ruth a religious accommodation.
- How will an employer know when it must consider making an exception to its dress and grooming policies or preferences to accommodate the religious practices of an applicant or employee?
Typically, the employer will advise the applicant or employee of its dress code or grooming policy, and subsequently the applicant or employee will indicate that an exception is needed for religious reasons. Applicants and employees will not know to ask for an accommodation until the employer makes them aware of a workplace requirement that conflicts with their religious practice. The applicant or employee need not use any “magic words” to make the request, such as “accommodation” or “Title VII.” If the employer reasonably needs more information, however, the employer and the employee should discuss the request. In some instances, even absent a request, it will be obvious that the practice is religious and conflicts with a work policy, and therefore that accommodation is needed.
Employer Knowledge Insufficient
James’s employer requires all of its employees to be clean-shaven. James is a newly hired employee, and was hired based on an online application and a telephone interview. When he arrives the first day with an unshorn beard, his supervisor informs him that he must comply with the “clean-shaven” policy or be terminated. James refuses to comply, but fails to inform his supervisor that he wears his beard for religious reasons. James should have explained to his supervisor that he wears the beard pursuant to a religious observance. The employer did not have to consider accommodation because it did not know that James wore his beard for religious reasons.
Employer Knowledge Sufficient
Same facts as above but, instead, when James’s supervisor informs him that he must comply with the “clean-shaven” policy or be terminated, James explains that he wears the beard for religious reasons, as he is a Messianic Christian. This is sufficient to request accommodation. The employer is permitted to obtain the limited additional information needed to determine whether James’s beard is worn due to a sincerely held religious practice and, if so, must accommodate by making an exception to its “clean-shaven” policy unless doing so would be an undue hardship. 
Employer Believes Practice Is Religious and Conflicts with Work Policy
Aatma, an applicant for a rental car sales position who is an observant Sikh, wears a chunni (religious headscarf) to her job interview. The interviewer does not advise her that there is a dress code prohibiting head coverings, and Aatma does not ask whether she would be permitted to wear the headscarf if she were hired. There is evidence that the manager believes that the headscarf is a religious garment, presumed it would be worn at work, and refused to hire her because the company requires sales agents to wear a uniform with no additions or exceptions. This refusal to hire violates Title VII, even though Aatma did not make a request for accommodation at the interview, because the employer believed her practice was religious and that she would need accommodation, and did not hire her for that reason. Moreover, if Aatma were hired but then instructed to remove the headscarf, she could at that time request religious accommodation.
- May an employer assign an employee to a non-customer contact position because of customer preference?
No. Assigning applicants or employees to a non-customer contact position because of actual or feared customer preference violates Title VII’s prohibition on limiting, segregating, or classifying employees based on religion. Even if the employer is following its uniformly applied employee policy or practice, it is not permitted to segregate an employee due to fear that customers will have a biased response to religious garb or grooming. The law requires the employer to make an exception to its policy or practice as a religious accommodation, because customer preference is not undue hardship.
Assigning Employee to “Back Room” Because of Religious Garb
Nasreen, a Muslim applicant for an airport ticket counter position, wears a headscarf, or hijab, pursuant to her religious beliefs. Although Nasreen is qualified, the manager fears that customers may think an airport employee who is identifiably Muslim is sympathetic to terrorist hijackers. The manager, therefore, offers her a position in the airline’s call center where she will only interact with customers by phone. This is religious segregation and violates Title VII.
As a best practice, managers and employees should be trained that the law may require making a religious exception to an employer’s otherwise uniformly applied dress or grooming rules, practices, or preferences. They should also be trained not to engage in stereotyping about work qualifications or availability based on religious dress and grooming practices. Many EEOC settlements of religious accommodation cases provide for the employer to adopt formal religious accommodation procedures to guide management and employees in handling these requests, as well as annual training on this topic.
- May an employer accommodate an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice by offering to have the employee cover the religious attire or item while at work?
Yes, if the employee’s religious beliefs permit covering the attire or item. However, requiring an employee’s religious garb, marking, or article of faith to be covered is not a reasonable accommodation if that would violate the employee’s religious beliefs.
Covering Religious Symbol Contrary to Individual’s Religious Beliefs
Edward practices the Kemetic religion, an ancient Egyptian faith, and affiliates himself with a tribe numbering fewer than ten members. He states that he believes in various deities and follows the faith’s concept of Ma’at, a guiding principle regarding truth and order that represents physical and moral balance in the universe. During a religious ceremony he received small tattoos encircling his wrist, written in the Coptic language, which express his servitude to Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun. When his employer asks him to cover the tattoos, he explains that it is a sin to cover them intentionally because doing so would signify a rejection of Ra. Therefore, covering the tattoos is not a reasonable accommodation, and the employer cannot require it absent undue hardship.
- May an employer deny accommodation of an employee’s religious dress or grooming practice based on the “image” that it seeks to convey to its customers?
An employer’s reliance on the broad rubric of “image” or marketing strategy to deny a requested religious accommodation may amount to relying on customer preference in violation of Title VII, or otherwise be insufficient to demonstrate that making an exception would cause an undue hardship on the operation of the business.