SJC rules in favor of Rastafarian who alleged discrimination

Boston, USA - The right of a business to control its public image doesn’t trump workers’ right to dress or groom themselves differently if they are required to do so by their religious beliefs, the state’s highest court ruled today.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the case of Bobby T. Brown, a Rastafarian who worked as technician at a Hadley Jiffy Lube owned by F.L. Roberts & Co. Inc.

Brown’s religion doesn’t permit him to shave or cut his hair. When the company instituted a new policy that required employees who worked with customers to be clean-shaven, Brown was only allowed to work out of sight from customers in the lower bay of the oil change shop, the court said in an opinion written by Justice Roderick Ireland.

Brown sued in 2006, saying he had been a victim of religious discrimination. A lower court judge ruled in favor of the company, saying that the company had a right to control its public image and it would be an “undue hardship” for the business to exempt Brown from the grooming policy.

But the SJC, in an opinion written by Ireland, disagreed. “We ... conclude that an exemption from a grooming policy cannot constitute an undue hardship as a matter of law,” the opinion said.

The SJC pointed to state antidiscrimination law that says companies should make “reasonable accommodations” for people’s religious practices. The SJC, sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings, said the company had not met its burden of proving that no accommodation was possible for Brown without undue hardship to the business.

The court warned that if employers are allowed to cite their “public image” in determining who deals with customers, they might lean toward tolerating the religious practices of majority groups, while forbidding practices that are less widespread.

“Requiring proof of undue hardship protects against the misuse of ‘public image,’ and is consistent with the requirement that the statute be construed liberally to accomplish its ends,” the court said.