May government employers prohibit workers who interact with the public from wearing religious symbols on the job?


Elizabeth, a librarian at a public library, wears a cross as part of her Catholic religious beliefs. In addition, after church services on Ash Wednesday each year, she arrives to work with a black ash mark on her forehead in the shape of a cross, which she leaves on until it wears off. Her new supervisor directed her not to wear the cross in the future while on duty, and to wash off the ash mark before reporting to work. Because Elizabeth's duties require her to interact with the public as a government employee, the supervisor fears that her cross and ash mark could be mistaken as government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. He wants to avoid any appearance of religious favoritism by government employees interacting with the public. Must the library accommodate Elizabeth’s religious practices, or would it be considered an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?


Government agency employers, like private employers, must generally allow exceptions to dress and grooming codes as a religious accommodation, although there may be limited situations in which the need for uniformity of appearance is so important that modifying the dress or grooming code would pose an undue hardship. 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.

In all instances, it is advisable for employers to make a case-by-case determination of any needed religious exceptions. Because the librarian's cross and ash mark are clearly personal in this situation, they would not cause a perception of government endorsement of religion. Also, allowing her to wear her religious symbols would not generate any administrative costs for the employer. Accordingly, accommodating Elizabeth's religious practice is not an undue hardship under Title VII.

Source: EEOC Publication: "Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities,"

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