In the News, Watercooler

Is There Room For Religion In The Workplace?

I love employment-related legal issues, especially the cutting-edge ones that make the papers. It isn’t that I like to see people in conflict. It’s just that when we read about these cases, it’s usually because their issues fall close to the line between what we know for sure about employment law, and what we truly don’t.

This is surely the case in the matter of Imane Boudlal vs. the Walt Disney Company. According to the LA Times , Imane was hired to work at a Walt Disney theme park, where every employee who deals with the public is seen as a cast member. Each cast member is issued a costume (uniform) and required to wear it on the job.  Two years after she began working for Disney, Ms. Boudlal asked for permission to wear a hijab – a headscarf – to work, and when her request was denied, she sued the company for employment discrimination on religious grounds.

As a former HR exec and a workplace commentator, I tend to side with the employee in these matters. In this case, I didn’t have an easy time doing that. Why did Ms. Boudlal wait two years before deciding that her religion compels her to wear a hijab to work? It’s a theme park. Can Disney allow this employee to wear her chosen article of attire, and refuse Rastafarians who want to wear dreadlocks, or Orthodox Jews who want to wear curly forelocks to their jobs at the theme park? I can’t make the argument that an employer’s requirement to accommodate the religious requirements of its employees goes quite that far.

If I started a religion called the Church of Maximum Flamboyance and required my adherents to wear feather-studded Las Vegas showgirl costumes, I wouldn’t expect many employers to welcome my disciples onto their payrolls. (Apart from a few casinos in Las Vegas.) And could I blame them? If the dress code rules are made clear up front, then it seems to me that any employee who isn’t comfortable with the dress code can look for a job at a place that’s more hospitable to his or her needs.

By the same token, if you’re a pharmacist who doesn’t want to prescribe birth control pills, you shouldn’t have to. That means you shouldn’t take a job at a pharmacy where people walk in with prescriptions that need filling. You can practice your craft at a hospital pharmacy or anywhere you won’t be put in contact with birth-control-requesting patrons. If you voluntarily take a job with a place where the job requires you to fill birth-control prescriptions, you have to do it – the pharmacy can’t be expected to call in another pharmacist.

The law requires that employers make a reasonable accommodation to allow employees to uphold their religious obligations. That makes sense. If a theme park that requires customer-facing employees to be in uniform is compelled to allow employees to customize their uniforms in a bunch of specific-to-the-employee ways, that wouldn’t be ideal for the theme park’s image. So, I’ve got to side with Disney on this one. That’s my opinion. If you disagree with me, leave a comment below and tell us why!