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Disney finally grants seek Sikh worker's right to wear beard, turban

A few weeks ago, our blog discussed how the Supreme Court of the United States recently handed down an important decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, a case that explored whether a job applicant is required to request a religious accommodation in order to secure the protection of the Civil Rights Act.

One of the key elements of this case was Abercrombie's look policy, which at the time dictated very exacting dress standards for its sales personnel, including a ban on headscarves and anything in black. Interestingly enough, the look policy of another household name, and one of the larger employers here in Florida, recently came under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union as also being potentially discriminatory.

The employer in question is none other than Walt Disney World in Orlando, which has a "Disney Look" policy dictating the following in relation to both hats and beards:

  • Beards are only allowed if they "create an overall neat, polished and professional look," meaning they must be well groomed and no longer than a quarter inch.
  • Hats among non-costumed employees are permitted so long as they are made of natural materials and equipped with a small brim for sun protection, but no mention is made of traditional headwear like headscarves or turbans.

Despite the existence of internal policies dictating that accommodations would be provided for those with sincerely held religious beliefs, the ACLU claimed that Disney strictly adhered to this look policy to the detriment of a Sikh employee.

In general, Sikh men are required by their religion to keep their head covered with a turban and wear a long beard, practices meant to serve as a visual representation of their commitment to their faith.

Reports indicate the Sikh employee in question was hired as an internal mail carrier back in 2008, and since that time has been forbidden from running routes outside of those to and from the corporate offices, as his beard and turban were found to be in violation of the Disney look policy.

Unable to get Disney to change its policy after seven years, the man turned to both the ACLU and the Sikh Coalition for help last year. The advocacy groups then penned a strongly worded letter on his behalf to Disney.

In the letter, both groups outlined how this state of affairs not only kept him of the sight of park visitors, but also meant he had to perform more work and created animosity among co-workers, as he was unable to assist them with their routes. Furthermore, it argued that it served to deny him advancement opportunities, and ultimately resulted in feelings of humiliation and isolation.   

In recent developments, Disney responded to the letter, finally approving the man's request to deliver mail throughout the park while wearing both his turban and beard.

While it's highly encouraging to see an employer do the right thing in a case like this, the unfortunate fact is that potentially discriminatory behavior is still a reality in many workplaces both large and small. Indeed, those with any concerns in this area should strongly consider speaking with an experienced legal professional.

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