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Religious Accommodation and the Case of the Skirt Hem

You may have seen this story a while back about a woman who was suspended from her job at the Toronto Pearson Airport because she refused to wear a skirt that she thought was not modest enough to satisfy her religion’s requirement for modest dress.   For 6 months, she was permitted to wear a skirt made of the same material, but a bit longer than the required skirt length.  But then the Airport authority (not her employer) insisted that she conform to the required skirt length.  When she refused, citing religious grounds, she was suspended.  Her union filed a human rights complaint, which was later settled on conditions that included transferring her to a new job where she could wear clothes she felt appropriate to satisfy her religious beliefs.

When I saw this story, I thought that it was a “no-brainer” that the duty to accommodate religious beliefs would require permitting the employee to wear a slightly longer skirt.  The rule appears to have an “adverse impact” on Muslim women, and how could allowing this possibly cause the employer “undue hardship”?  Is skirt length a matter of national security?   

But what I found most interesting was the comments in many of the letters sent to the newspapers about the story.  A good percentage of those letters expressed the view that the employee should quit if she doesn’t like the dress code.  For example, here is the content of one letter sent to the Toronto Star:

 ”Despite what our “Canadian” government tries to say, Canadians do have an identity. And one of our characteristics is that we follow rules; we are a people of order. If Muslims or Catholics or Jews or any other religion decide that their beliefs do not fit in with an employer’s rules, then they have the right to leave the employment, but not to change the employer’s rules. “

This sort of comment was not atypical.   The view expressed misses the point completely about the duty to accommodate–if everyone must accept an employer’s discriminatory rules, or else quit or “not apply” at all, then human rights protections would be meaningless.   The tone of many of the letters suggests a backlash against the duty to accommodate religious beliefs.  What do you think about this case?  Should the employee have had to comply with the dress requirements or look for another job? 

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