The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has announced that Family Foods, Inc., a company that operates a number of Taco Bell restaurants in North Carolina, has agreed to pay $27,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit they filed last year on behalf of an employee that was fired after refusing to cut his hair for religious reasons.
Christopher Abbey, 27, worked at a Taco Bell in Fayetteville, N.C., from 2004 until 2010, when managers asked him to cut his long hair in accordance with the restaurant's grooming policy, Occupational Health and Safety magazine reports. But Abbey refused to comply with the policy on the grounds that getting a haircut violates the Nazirite religion, which he has been practicing since age 15.
According to the EEOC, "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."
In July 2011, EEOC regional attorney Lynette Barnes and trial lawyer Katherine Zimmerman filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Eastern District of North Carolina alleging that Family Foods, Inc. violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires companies employing 15 workers or more to "reasonably accommodate" their workers' religious practices unless doing so results in "undue hardship" for the company.
The lawsuit demanded that Family Foods., Inc. pay a number of damages including back pay, job search costs, and compensation for "emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, humiliation."
In order to avoid a jury trial, the company agreed to pay $27,000 and adopt a formal policy regarding religious accommodation in addition to holding training sessions informing employees about Title VII.
Labor law attorney Kim Ryan, who reviewed the case for 9News Denver, said that a number of cases have been filed in the past on behalf of employees who refused to comply with employers' demands to change their appearance, and judges have ruled both for and against workers. In one recent case, a Muslim woman sued Abercrombie and Fitch for requiring her to remove her headscarf during shifts, and courts sided with the clothing chain.
In 2011, a Roanoke, Va.-based moving company paid $30,000 to a settle a lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of a Rastafarian who was fired after refusing to cut his dreadlocks.
Watch Ryan's review of the Taco Bell case below: