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OK to Fire Employee for Not Getting a Haircut?

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on August 01, 2011 6:41 AM

First, there was the Taco Bell meat lawsuit. And now, there's the Taco Bell haircut lawsuit.

On behalf of Christopher Abbey, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a federal lawsuit against the owners of a Taco Bell franchise in Fayetteville, North Carolina, alleging that the company engaged in impermissible religious discrimination when it fired Abbey after he refused to cut his hair.

His religion forbids it.

Ordinarily, it is within an employer’s right to enforce a strict dress code and grooming policy within the workplace. This includes acceptable hair lengths for both men and women.

However, this ability is not absolute, and a grooming policy may run afoul of Title VII, as it appears to have done in the case of Christopher Abbey.

Explaining why it filed the Taco Bell haircut lawsuit, the EEOC notes that Abbey is a Nazirite, an Old Testament religion that forbids the cutting of the hair.

Family Foods Inc., the owner of the Fayetteville Taco Bell, had allowed him to keep his hair long for six years, but last year, he was asked to cut it.

Despite explaining his religious requirements, the EEOC reports he was fired.

Title VII requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs so long as it does not pose an undue burden. This includes altering dress and grooming codes to allow for long hair, or for items like head scarves.

Should Family Foods lose the Taco Bell haircut lawsuit, which is quite likely, it will be responsible for paying Christopher Abbey back pay, compensatory damages, and potentially be subject to a consent decree.

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