Can My Employer Require Me to Remove or Alter Religious Attire, Clothing, or Facial Hair?

Generally, the answer is no.  Effective October 8, 2019, employers in New York State (akin to employers in New York City) will not be permitted to require employees to change garments and or facial grooming if to do so would violate an employee’s religion.  The new legislation was signed by Governor Cuomo in August 2019 and alters the New York State Human Rights Law to prohibit discrimination based on “the wearing of any attire, clothing, or facial hair in accordance with the requirements of his or her religion. . . .”[1]  However, the law does not alter an employer’s right to prohibit such religious expression if after a bona fide (or real) effort it is “unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s or prospective employee’s sincerely held religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

When Do Issues Involving Religious Attire Arise?

In 2004, a Sikh, MTA subway motorman—who had worn a turban in conformity with his religious practice throughout 20 years of employment with the MTA—was transferred to a less desirable position when he refused to wear an MTA uniform hat or affix an MTA logo to his turban.[2]  In the end, the matter was resolved with affected employees being permitted to wear a turban consistent with the color of their uniforms with no logo affixed.[3]  The same issue arose with khimars (a headscarf worn by observant Muslims) with a similar result.[4]  By contrast, in the past, where there was a valid safety concern requiring an employee to wear a hard hat (which did not fit over a turban), for example, the result was that the safety issue was stronger than the religious concern and deemed to be a hardship on the employer.[5] 

It will be interesting to see whether previously explored scenarios have new outcomes.  For example, in cases outside of New York, courts adopted the explanation that employees needed to be clean shaven in order for a safety mask to fit properly (with a secure seal against the skin) and, in a separate case, to conform with the employer’s public image.[6] 

Given how new this legislation is, it is possible that accepted standards will continue to evolve.  If you would like to discuss your situation with us, please feel free to call or email us at any time. You will be on the phone with an attorney within 24 hours.

 


[1] New York State Senate Bill S4037.

[2] United States v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102704, (E.D.N.Y Sept. 24, 2010)(collecting cases).

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/31/nyregion/mta-agrees-that-workers-may-wear-religious-headgear.html

[4]United States v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102704 (E.D.N.Y Sept. 24, 2010); https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/31/nyregion/mta-agrees-that-workers-may-wear-religious-headgear.html

[5] Kalsi v. New York City Transit Auth., 62 F. Supp. 2d 745 (E.D.N.Y. 1998) 

[6] United States v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102704 (E.D.N.Y Sept. 24, 2010)