Men pay heavy price for beliefs

Durban, South Africa - When two members of the Baptist Nazareth Church were asked to shave off their beards by their employers, they had no option but to refuse.

For Vusumuzi Mdluli and Perry Dlamini's church - led by Vimbeni Shembe - does not allow them to trim their beards.

"It's one of our principles. Members would rather die than cut their beards," explained church spokesperson Reverend Harry Mthwetwa.

But Mduli and Dlamini's employer, Greenfour Security of Richards Bay, where the men were employed as security guards, had its own policy - and that was that all employees had to be clean-shaven.

'Sensitive to potential conflict between religious beliefs and conditions of employment'

After Mdluli and Dlamini refused to shave their beards, disciplinary action was taken and they were eventually dismissed. But the sacked men took their case to the Durban Labour Court, where they claimed unfair dismissal based on religious beliefs.

But they lost the case, and lawyer Andile Ncgongo of the Durban Justice Centre, which represented them, said an appeal had now been lodged.

The case is just one of a growing number of similar cases now reaching the courts where employees are being dismissed for not sticking to company codes as a result of religious beliefs.

And although Greenfour Security had a victory in this recent case, city lawyer Michael Maeso of Shepstone & Wylie Attorneys' employment law department, in commenting on the case, warned businesses about disciplining employees for not wearing uniforms if it infringes on their religious beliefs.

"Employers need to be sensitive to potential conflict between religious beliefs and conditions of employment, as failure to do so can result in a costly legal procedure," Maeso said.

Mdluli, of KwaMashu, and Dlamini, of Richards Bay, had to prove to the court that trimming their beards violated an essential tenet of their faith. As for the court, it had to consider whether the trimming of beards constituted an inherent requirement of the job.

It was accepted that all employees had to be neat - but it was disputed that having an untrimmed beard was untidy.

The court considered standing orders in the South African National Defence Force, Durban Metro Police and SAPS, and "in these services, the court accepted that neatness is the rationale for regulating beards. It therefore accepted the employer's rule was neither arbitrary nor irrational''.

During evidence, it was ascertained that the clean-shaven rule applied to all Greenfour Security employees, irrespective of their religion.

The court accepted that an employer was entitled to set a uniform dress code as a condition of employment, and that compliance with the dress code could be compulsory for practical reasons depending on the job, "such as the wearing of safety gear or for purposes of promoting an image or brand".

Thus in these circumstances "the court accepted that the clean-shaven rule was an inherent requirement" of the guards' job.

Expert advice "was unable to show what penance might follow if the tenet of trimming beards was not adhered to".

And it had not been explained why, "if the employees were exempted by their religion to work on the Sabbath, they could not be exempted from trimming their beards".

Having failed to prove to the court that the no-shaving rule was an essential tenet of their faith, the guards' claims were dismissed.

Maeso pointed out that it was important to note that the court had not been asked to decide whether Greenfour Security had attempted to accommodate the two men.

"The reasons being even if they were allowed to keep their beards - trimmed neatly - they would not have accepted as they believed it was against their religion," Maeso said.

While the employer's attempts to accommodate religious practices was not then relevant, "this may not always be the case and the result could have been very different, highlighting the point that an indifference to religious practice could prove costly," said Maeso.

Mdluli said losing his job had come as a shock, as he had worked for the company since 2000 and Dlamini since 2001. He had a beard when he got the job, although then of course it was not the length it was now, he said.

Dlamini could not be reached.

# A ruling is still pending from the Constitutional Court on whether school pupils, like Sunali Pillay, who matriculated from Durban Girls' High School last year, have the right to wear a nose stud.

Sunali's mother, Navi, took the school to the Equality Court after it threatened to suspend her daughter for breaking its dress code. Sunali told the school it was a cultural and religious practice.

The Pillays lost, but successfully appealed to Pietermaritzburg High Court. The school and the KwaZulu-Natal department of education have since appealed to the Constitutional Court.