How do you respond when someone tells you they practice voodoo?  How about Santeria or Rastafari?   Do you laugh or scoff in response, do you start singing Sublime??  Here in South Florida, a multicultural and multi-ethnic area, there are a plethora of minor religions being practiced by thousands of people.  As a result, laughing or kidding about someone’s religion, even if seems like a joke to you, is the wrong move in an employment setting.

As an example, news of a recent employment lawsuit filed by a follower of the Yoruba religion, the African ancestor to voodoo and Santeria, who claims discrimination because her employer was making fun of her religion and allegedly restricting her ability to wear her religious garb.  Specifically, Jenessys Gomez, alleges that her bosses and co-workers made fun of her after she started wearing Yoruba-mandated white from head to toe, including a white cover over her shaved head.

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This latest lawsuit is a good reminder to employers that Title VII covers all kinds of religions and even non-theistic beliefs.  The EEOC guidance on religious observance provides the following:

Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief and defines religion very broadly for purposes of determining what the law covers.  For purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, 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 that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.  An employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it.  Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.

When it comes to religious garb or grooming, employers should tread carefully and only limit an employee’s right to wear their religions garb or abide by their religions grooming requirements if, and only if, it creates a real workplace safety, security, or health concerns.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.