Rastafarians: Religious Discrimination
ORLANDO, FL – Religious beliefs, and practices are diverse. In order to follow their beliefs, some employees are required to dress in a certain way, maintain a particular appearance, or live their lives according to certain rules. Rastafarianism or Rastafari is a religion, or spiritual journey, that has been subjected to constant discrimination, in both Jamaica and the U.S.

Religious discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of the person’s religious beliefs. Federal law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs, such as the Abrahamic religion of Rastafarianism.

Among the best known Rastsa are Bob Marley, Bob Marley’s talented children (Damian, Ziggy, Rohan, Ky-Mani, Stephen, Julian), Snoop Dogg (now known as “Snoop Lion”), Jah Cure, and Beres Hammond.

Rastafarianism is a newer religious movement, it developed in Jamaica during the 1930s. “Rastalogy” is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible. Central to the religion is a monotheistic belief in a single God, or Jah, who partially resides within each individual. The former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, is regarded as “the Conquering Lion of Judah,” and is given special importance. Because religion lacks any one centralized authority, there are various unique practices among practitioners, who are known as Rastafari, Rastafarians, or Rastas.

Through their use of language, dress, dreaded hair, and lifestyle Rastas draw a clear boundary between themselves and non-Rastas. One of the distinguishing marks of their belief system is the formation of hair into dreadlocks, which is Biblically inspired (from Leviticus 21:5, “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh” and Numbers 6:5 “All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow”), regarded as marking a covenant with God, the Rasta idea of “naturalness,” and a symbol of strength linked to the hair of the Biblical figure of Samson.

Because of their distinct characteristics—like dreadlocks, Rastas are easily singled out at times for failing to conform to society’s norms. However, Rastas are protected to an extent under Federal law because of their religion. While Title VII does not prohibit employment dress or grooming rules, per se, as long as these company rules do not have a “disparate impact” on the applicant or employee. However, Title VII does require an employer, once the employer becomes aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate the person whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with the employer’s requirements or “appearance policies,” unless doing so would pose an “undue hardship.”

In the US, several public schools, and workplaces have lost lawsuits as the result of banning Rastas from keeping their dreadlocks. In 2009, a group of Rastafari who work as public safety officers in Manhattan settled a federal lawsuit with the Grand Central Partnership in New York City, allowing them to wear their dreadlocks in neat ponytails, rather than be forced to “painfully tuck in their long hair” in their uniform caps and suspending anyone who allegedly violated the grooming policy.

More recently, in June 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (“EEOC”) announced that an Orlando, Florida company, Hospitality Staff, settled the case by paying the Rastafari cook $30,000 for violating his religious rights and forced the company to implement a new company-wide accommodation policy. Back in 2016, the EEOC took action against Hospitality Staff, based on the company’s religious discrimination for ordering a prep cook to cut his dreadlocks because it didn’t comply with the company’s appearance standards. The cook, Courtney Joseph, happened to work for Hospitality Staff at one of Walt Disney’s resorts. Disney complained about the employee’s hair and Hospitality Staff management told Joseph to cut it if he wanted to keep his job. When Joseph explained that as a practicing Rastafarian he couldn’t cut his hair and that his dreadlocks were part of his religious beliefs, the company terminated him.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Hospitality Staff’s employee handbook and policy manual will be amended to include a clear policy for religious-based requests. EEOC wrote in its announcement, “Rastafarians wear dreadlocks as part of their sincerely held religious belief, and making an employment decision because of such a religious practice violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Title VII protects people from discrimination based on their sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs. Likewise, for employees living in the State of New York, or New York City, there are additional protections under state and local legislation. The experienced New York City sexual harassment attorneys at the Derek Smith Law Group, PLLC have years of experience litigating claims of discrimination. If you feel you have been discriminated against, please give our attorneys a call at (800) 807-2209 for your free consultation.