In a recent case, the New Jersey Superior Court decided that an employer’s policy prohibiting employees from wearing henna tattoos on their hands while at work may amount to discriminatory interference with the exercise of employees’ religious beliefs.
The case involved Althea Saunders, who worked as a receptionist for Cooper Health System. Saunders occasionally reported to work with henna tattoos on her hands. The ritual application of henna to the top sides of one’s hands is commonly practiced by Muslim women as a form of worship. Henna tattoos are not permanent, and they typically fade within one to two weeks.
One day, Saunders reported to work with henna tattoos on her hands. According to Saunders, management inquired about the tattoos. Saunders explained that she had applied them in connection with her exercise of her religious beliefs, but was told that she needed to remove them to comply with the dress code. Saunders’s supervisor suggested that she cover the tattoos by wearing blue medical gloves. After that day, the threat of disciplinary action prevented Saunders from continuing to practice henna art, and she began to receive negative performance evaluations despite previously receiving positive ones.
Saunders sued Cooper Health and individual managers in New Jersey Superior Court. In addition to common law claims, Saunders alleged an unlawful interference with her exercise of her religious beliefs, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). Saunders alleged that the defendants’ actions in reprimanding her for reporting to work with visible henna tattoos on her hands, as well as the threat of discipline if she should report to work with visible henna tattoos in the future, required her to violate or forgo her sincerely held religious beliefs. Saunders alleged that the defendants could have accommodated her religious beliefs by excusing her from the portion of the employee dress code concerning tattoos, but failed to do so.
Cooper Health moved to dismiss Saunders’ claims. The court dismissed Saunders’s common law claims, but it refused to dismiss her NJLAD claims. All of the defendants must defend those claims at trial.
As with other employee policies, dress codes are not one size fits all. When applying a dress code or personal grooming policy against employees who express special needs due to their sincerely held religious practices or observances (or disabilities), employers should confer with legal counsel to ensure that they are not violating employment laws by refusing accommodations that would not result in an undue hardship to their business.