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Religious discrimination or health code? EEOC sues Taco Bell

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes a requirement that employers respect the religious beliefs of their employees by making reasonable accommodations for religious customs and practices. That is, unless those accommodations pose undue hardship.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has recently filed a lawsuit against a company operating a chain of Taco Bell restaurants. The lawsuit alleges wrongful termination and a violation of the civil rights act.

In 2010, a young man was fired after six years at Taco Bell because he refused to cut his hair. The man claims he is a victim of religious discrimination, because he wears his hair long for religious purposes.

He is a practicing Nazirite. According to the EEOC lawyer representing him, "Nazirites base their religious beliefs on references in the Old Testament to individuals who took a special vow of abstinence. In accordance with this vow, Nazirites do not cut their hair, believing that long hair is a way of showing their devotion to God."

The EEOC believes this is a clear case of religious discrimination. They are seeking not only employment reinstatement, but also back pay and compensatory and punitive damages.

However, the company claims that the young man was in violation of their grooming policy. He was informed of this, and he was given that ultimatum that he would be fired if he didn't cut his hair.

There are many questions left to be answered which could prove important in the case. Did Taco Bell try to make reasonable accommodations, such as hair nets and other restraints? Why did his hair and grooming only become a problem after six years as an employee? Did his grooming cause potential health problems in the restaurant?

Health standards are high in the food service industry, and the company may argue that accommodating the man's beliefs posed an undue hardship. It may be difficult to determine if religious discrimination took place until or unless those important questions are answered.

Source: "A Hairy EEOC Fight for Taco Bell," Jenna Greene, 28 July 2011

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