Magazine article Workforce Management

Costco Piercing Case Puts a New Face on the Issue of Wearing Religious Garb at Work

Magazine article Workforce Management

Costco Piercing Case Puts a New Face on the Issue of Wearing Religious Garb at Work

Article excerpt

A member of the Church of Body Modification insists that her spiritual beliefs trump the company's dress code, triggering a lengthy legal battle

IN DECEMBER, a four-year-long court battle came to an end when a U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed a $2 million religious discrimination lawsuit brought against Costco, the nation's largest wholesale retailer.

The case, brought by West Springfield, Massachusetts, employee Kimberly Cloutier, was certainly not your average religious discrimination matter. Provoked by a change in the company's dress code policy, it pitted facial piercings against professional appearance, and involved, among other things, an eyebrow ring and a small church that few people have ever heard of.

Beneath this quirky legal matter is an underlying issue of growing concern to all employers: balancing an employee's religious beliefs against the business interests of a company.

The story began in 2001, when Costco revised its dress code to prohibit all facial jewelry, aside from earrings. Costco made this change in order to promote what the company considered a professional appearance, court records indicate. (Judy Vadney, Costco's personnel director, declined to comment, citing the recent end of "very expensive litigation.")

Cloutier, a cashier and an employee since 1997, had numerous body piercings and tattoos on her upper arms. Soon after the new policy was disseminated, Cloutier's supervisor informed her that she had to remove her facial piercings-in particular, her eyebrow ring, which she refused to do.

At that point, Cloutier indicated that she was a member of the Church of Body Modification, and said that her eyebrow piercing was part of her religion.

The Church of Body Modification, established in 1999, has about 1,000 members and encourages its adherents to "grow as individuals through body modification and its teachings" to "promote growth in mind, body and spirit."

The church urges its members to be "confident role models in learning, teaching and displaying body modification," which includes piercing, tattooing, branding, cutting and body manipulation. Court records indicate that Cloutier interpreted this to mean that she was prohibited from removing or covering her facial jewelry. The conflict with Costco's dress code was clear.

RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY GROWING

An employee's religious beliefs often enter into the workplace, creating a sometimes awkward-if not potentially litigious-situation for employers, who are required by federal law not to discriminate on the basis of religion.

While many employers are more familiar with employees' requests for work-schedule changes to accommodate religious practice and beliefs, a growing number are becoming acquainted with complaints about dress codes on the basis of religion, says Patrick Kilker, an attorney at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott in Pittsburgh. More dresscode requests will come. "With growing religious diversity in this country, you can bet on these cases becoming more common," he says.

Many religions impose some sort of requirement upon their adherents in terms of appearance: Some require the growing of facial hair, for example, or the wearing of certain accoutrement, such as a Sikh turban, a Jewish yarmulke or a Muslim hijab, or head scarf. Other religions require certain markings, tattoos or, in the case of the Church of Body Modification, a whole host of practices that might interfere with a company's dress code.

These religiously motivated practices leave some companies with a dilemma as to how to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs if they conflict with standards of grooming or appearance on the job.

The resolution of this dilemma is not entirely up to a company's discretion. The law guides a company's hand, says Patrick H. Hicks, managing partner at the Las Vegas office of the employment law firm Littler Mendelson.

According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "the employer has an obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs," he says, which includes making allowances for an employee's garb or appearance when it is influenced by religion. …

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