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Massachusetts Religious Discrimination Statute Reviewed by Supreme Judicial Court; Claim of Discrimination by Rastafarian Considered

Can an employee demand reasonable accomodation for his Rastafarian hair and beard in the face of his employer’s personal grooming policy which bans facial hair and long locks? The answer, of course, is it depends. But in the recent case of Brown v. F.L. Roberts & Co., Inc., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the employer failed to demonstrate that any exception to its grooming policy would present an undue business hardship to justify its failure to make a reasonable accomodation to its employee’s religion.

The employee also failed to sustain his burden to demonstrate that his assignment by the employer to the lower bay of its Jiffy Lube oil-changing franchise was not a reasonable accomodation as a matter of law.

The case is an excellent overview of the Massachusetts religious discimination law, G.L. c. 151B, § 4(1A). That statute provides, in part, “It shall be unlawful discriminatory practice for an employer to impose upon an individual as a condition of obtaining or retaining employment any terms or conditions, compliance with which would require such individual to violate or [forgo] the practice of, his creed or religion as required by that creed or religion . . . and the employer shall make reasonable accommodation to the religious need of such individual. . . . ‘Reasonable Accommodation’, as used in this subsection shall mean such accommodation . . . as shall not cause undue hardship in the conduct of the employer’s business.”

The purpose of the statute is to prohibit discrimination against individuals for sincerely held religious beliefs.  But the statute also balances the needs of employers by providing hardship provisions.  The religious beliefs of an individual, even when most sincerely held, cannot excessively interfere with the employer’s business affairs.

In the case at hand, Jiffy Lube hired a consultant to advise on ways to improve business.  One recommendation was to implement a personal grooming policy that required employees to be cleanly shaven and to have neatly trimmed hair.  The plaintiff, however, had adhered to his Rastafarian beliefs for over a decade, and those beliefs included a prohibition against shaving or cutting of hair. The employee requested an exception for his religious beliefs. The employer apparently responded that he did not have the time to consider religious beliefs.

The plaintiff, who previously had responsibility for customer contact, was assigned to the lower bay (read “grease pit”) of the oil change facility, where he had no customer contact. The lower bay was also colder, and the plaintiff was always the last to get to breaks and lunch.

Importantly, the court held that the Massachusetts statutory scheme under G.L. c. 151B afforded more protections to employees than the Federal provisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.  The court distinguished the case from Cloutier v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 390 F.3d 126, 138 (1st Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 545 U.S. 1131 (2005), which upheld the employer’s ban on facial piercings despite the employee’s claim of religious discrimination.

The defendant could not make a blanket assertion that an exception to the hair ban would create an undue hardship on the business. The court clearly state, “an exemption from a grooming policy cannot constitute an undue hardship as a matter of law.”  At a minimum, the employer was required to engage in a discussion with the employee regarding a reasonable accomodation, and to provide a reasonable accomodation unless it could demonstrate an undue hardship.  On the record, the employer’s claim of undue hardship failed.

The plaintiff was unable to convince the court that his assignment to the lower bay could not be considered a reasonable accomodation. The question, the court concluded, was a factual one reserved for the jury to consider when the case was sent back to the Superior Court.

What Should An Employer Do?  The Brown case demonstrates once again that Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws will be given broader reading than their Federal counterparts. Claims of discrimination can be best avoided by appropriate proactive measures when the risk arises. Claims by employees about religious beliefs or concerns about discrimination for gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status and veterans status must be taken extremely seriously. If you do not have strong anti-discrimination policies in place, you should consult your attorney promptly to implement them. The law requires employers to have strong written anti-discrimination policies in place. Consultation with an attorney when questions of discrimination claims arise may help prevent them from developing into expensive claims for damages.

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