A Constitutional Right to Body-Piercing?

June 11th, 2011

A Costco employee had an eyebrow piercing that violated the company’s dress code. Management told her to cover it with a Band-Aid while she was working. This she refused to do. She explained that, as a member of the Church of Body Modification (“CBM”), she had to be a confident role model, proudly displaying her eyebrow jewelry at all times. Members of the CBM believe that–through rituals like piercing, scarring, tattooing and suspension—they strengthen the connection between their bodies, minds, and souls.

970116_80317426

Costco fired her, and she sued. The First Circuit held that Costco would suffer undue hardship if it allowed the employee to display her face jewelry. “Courts have long recognized the importance of personal appearance regulations, even in the face of Title VII challenges.” By allowing an exemption from the dress code, “Costco forfeits its ability to mandate compliance and thus loses control over its public image.”

This was a closer case than one might think. Initially, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that Costco had violated the employee’s civil rights. And this case may have turned on the fact that Costco was more reasonable in offering accommodations than the plaintiff was in refusing them.

It was a different matter when a high school freshman insisted that her membership in the CBM trumped the school’s dress code. She insisted on keeping her nose stud and got suspended. The federal district court for North Carolina granted an injunction against the enforcement of the dress code. If the student were not permitted to practice her religious beliefs, she would suffer greater harm than the school would, if it relaxed its dress code. The school ultimately abandoned its appeal and paid the plaintiff’s legal fees.

Neither courts nor employers are in a good position to determine whether a religious belief is sincere or not. When an employee complains that a neutral rule is infringing on her religious beliefs, wise employers will make a serious effort to reconcile those beliefs with the legitimate requirements of the business.

posted by: joelrosen in EMPLOYMENT & DISCRIMATION | No Comments

Leave a Reply