Does Dress Code Trump Religious Freedom?

Here's a fascinating workplace issue (fascinating for me, anyway) involving dress code and freedom-of-religion issues. And the employer is the Walt Disney Company, to boot!

So let's get to the issues. Can employers create dress codes for their employees? Of course they can, but they must allow some reasonable accommodation for religious reasons. If you'd allow a person to wear a charm bracelet, you can't say, "But the charms can't be crosses or Stars of David."

At Disney, the idea is that when you're on the job, you're onstage. Everyone is a cast member. We took our kids to Disney this summer, and I was chatting up a young man who sold me a churro. He's getting his degree in Communications from Cal State. I asked him, "Are you going to go into the entertainment field?" and he said, "I'm in it now." (Go, Disney Kool-Aid purveyors!)

Now, this "job as entertainment" thing has its own slippery slope. Abercrombie & Fitch tried to play that card a few years ago when they were sued for keeping their black employees (and anyone else who didn't look like the Aryan, tennis-anyone, Superior-Being crowd portrayed in their ads) from working up front with the customers. I can't remember, but I don't think the "it's entertainment" defense worked for them.

The airlines used to use that line, back when they insisted that flight attendants had to be tiny and perky. The problem is that if employers can say, "We have an image to uphold," then you'd have to expect them to say, "All front-desk receptionists have to be gorgeous and under 25, and female," etc. I'm not in favor of such a broad-based standard. If you can perform the job, as far as I'm concerned, you can have the job. The exceptions should be obvious (you might have to look the part if you're going to perform on Broadway, for example).

Back to this lawsuit. I've got to side with Disney on this one. The woman took the job knowing that there was a dress code. If the dress code doesn't suit your religious beliefs, don't take the job. For me it's like the pharmacists who don't want to prescribe birth control. That's cool. That's their choice. In that case, don't work at a pharmacy that will compel you to fill prescriptions for people who walk in. Work in a hospital pharmacy, for instance.

I don't see how employers can be expected to accommodate any dress-code expectation an employee might have. I could start a religion right now called the Church of Flamboyance, and require adherents to wear massive feather getups like the showgirls in Las Vegas. That's going to violate a heck of a lot of organizations' dress codes. Should they be required to allow my parishioners to wear the feathered costumes at work? I'm thinking no.

But leave a comment and tell me where I'm wrong.