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Religious dress and grooming practices are protected by law

The Internal Revenue Service recently settled a five-year-old case where a former employee, a Sikh, was dismissed for carrying into the workplace a 3-inch ceremonial dagger. The blunt blade, known as a kirpan, is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a symbol of faith indicating resistance to evil and defense of truth.

Recently the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stepped up action to protect individuals from discrimination based on their dress or grooming practices mandated by sincerely held religious beliefs. In most instances, employers are required by law to make exceptions to their usual rules or preferences.

Religious observance is broadly defined to protect individuals. Various laws protect all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief, and define religion very broadly to include not only traditional, organized religion, 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.

Since religious observances or practices often include wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, or following specific grooming practices, firms need to be aware of the religious basis for an employee’s dress or hair style.

Laws apply 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 fall under religion protections. 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.

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