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August 09, 2010

In a law enforcement environment, safety interests trump sincere religious beliefs

In a law enforcement environment, safety interests trump sincere religious beliefs
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v The GEO Group, Inc., USCA 3rd Circuit, No. 09-3093

GEO, a private company, contracted to run the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the prison for Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

In April 2005, the Hill Facility instituted a dress policy that provided that “[n]o hats or caps will be permitted to be worn in the facility unless issued with the uniform.” The new policy also stated that “[s]carves and hooded jackets or sweatshirts will not be permitted past the Front Security Desk.”

These directives were interpreted to prohibit the wearing of a khimar, an “Islamic religious head scarf, designed to cover the hair, forehead, sides of the neck, shoulders, and chest,” which was until then worn by some female Muslim employees inside of the Hill Facility.

EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of a class of Muslim women employees against GEO, contending that GEO violated Title VII's prohibitions on religious discrimination when it failed to accommodate the Muslim female employees by providing them an exception to the prison's dress policy that prevented them from wearing khimars at work.

The Circuit Court affirmed the federal district court’s decision granting GEO's motion for summary judgment dismissing EEOC’s complaint.

The district court had cited Webb v. City of Philadelphia, 562 F.3d 256,* in support of its ruling.

In Webb the US Circuit Court of Appeals, 3rd Circuit, held that regardless of the sincere religious beliefs of certain police officer of the need to wear a khimar, their belief had to yield to the Philadelphia's police department's policy prohibiting the wearing of a khimar while on duty because "safety is undoubtedly an interest of the greatest importance."

* The Webb decision is posted on the Internet at http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/073081p.pdf

The GEO decision is posted on the Internet at: http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/093093p.pdf
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