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Post date: June 28 2001

Fed Ex Named In Religious Accommodation Suit

Attorney General Spitzer today joined a court action alleging that the Federal Express Corporation violated anti-discrimination laws by firing employees who wear dreadlocks for religious reasons.

The lawsuit - initiated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) - follows an investigation of the company's dress policy by Spitzer's office. That policy forbids individuals involved in customer contact from wearing dreadlocks. The company enforced this policy against at least seven couriers who wore dreadlocks as part of their religious observance.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are required to reasonably accommodate their employee's sincerely-held religious beliefs. When the couriers were informed of the new application of Fed Ex's policy, all offered to wear their hair under a hat or otherwise in a neat and businesslike fashion. However, Fed Ex refused this accommodation, demanding that the couriers cut off the dreadlocks or lose their jobs. The men were first placed on a 90-day unpaid leave, and were later terminated after being unable to locate comparable positions that did not require customer contact.

"We live in a diverse and pluralistic society," Spitzer said. "Employers must understand that federal and state laws require that religious practices be accommodated whenever possible. In this case, Federal Express failed to follow the law that would have allowed these individuals freedom in pursuing their religious beliefs."

The Attorney General today intervened in the EEOC lawsuit with a similar filing by his office. Spitzer's complaint notes that the couriers had exemplary work records and several commendations for excellent service.

The lawsuit is another in a series of cases that the Attorney General has brought to ensure the religious freedom of employees throughout New York State. Prior cases have involved employers' refusals to accommodate their employees' requests for time off for the Sabbath and employers whose dress code conflicted with their employees religious practices and beliefs.

The petition seeks damages and broad injunctive relief that would compel Fed Ex to accommodate religious practices as long as the accommodation does not unduly burden the company.

Nathan Diament of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations said: "The Orthodox Union is deeply appreciative of the Attorney General's dedication to this cause. In an increasingly religiously diverse America, it is critical that all religious Americans have their beliefs accommodated by employers and protected by the law."

Spitzer noted the need to strengthen New York State's Civil Rights laws: "We took this case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and we're taking it to federal court now, because New York's current laws don't adequately protect all religious practices." Spitzer pointed to pending legislation that he recently submitted to the State Legislature that would enhance the protections afforded to employees' religiously-motivated conduct.

The case is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Tynia D. Richard and Civil Rights Bureau Chief Andrew G. Celli, Jr.