Question: We recently instituted a no-beard policy to ensure that men can securely wear their required safety masks. However, one of our Muslim employees refused, citing the Prophet Muhammad. I’ve studied the Quran, and I know that it doesn’t require beards. Can we discipline or fire him for not shaving?
Answer: The answer depends on whether you can accommodate the employee’s religious belief, not on whether his belief is “correct” according to any particular interpretation. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to reasonably accommodate an applicant’s or employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, unless it would cause an undue hardship to the business.
What Constitutes a Religious Belief, and Can Employers Question that Belief?
A religious belief can include non-organized religions and convictions. If the employee truly believes that the religious practice is necessary (regardless of your own opinion), then you as the employer must explore accommodation options. A recent case decided by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals hammers home this point. A 40-year evangelical Christian employee refused to use a hand scanner for fear that it would put the “Mark of the Beast” on him. The employer consulted the manufacturer, who helpfully (!) explained that according to the Bible, the Mark of the Beast can only be transferred through the right hand. The employer then required the worker to use his left hand or be fired. The court said it wasn’t the employer’s responsibility to “question the correctness or even the plausibility” of the religious belief. More damning, the court noted that other employees were allowed to use an alternate key pad as an accommodation for injuries and disabilities (EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., 4th Cir, June 2017).
Religious Accommodation in the Workplace
Notably, the undue hardship analysis under Title VII isn’t as rigorous as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A religious accommodation is unreasonable if it poses more than a “de minimis” cost to the employer. (In Oregon, however, it’s much harder to show undue hardship, because Oregon follows the same high standard for religious accommodation as it does for disability accommodation, which is similar to the ADA.) You need to determine if there is a reasonable accommodation, such as wearing a different mask (respirator). If the accommodation doesn’t cost too much or create an unreasonable safety risk, the employee gets to keep his beard and his job.