Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

September 30, 2000

Source: The Houston Chronicle

On September 30, 2000, The Houston Chronicle reported that "the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Papa John's Pizza in federal court on Friday, alleging religious discrimination for terminating a pizza delivery driver who must wear a beard for religious reasons. Last year Iqbal Akhtar was hired as a delivery driver by a company that is a franchisee for Papa John's Pizza, Houston Pizza Venture. According to the lawsuit, within days of his hiring he was told that he must shave his beard. Akhtar, a Muslim, explained that his religious beliefs would not permit him to shave his beard, said Kathy Boutchee, the EEOC lawyer handling the case. His boss told Akhtar he couldn't work there unless he shaved his beard, and he was sent home to 'think about it,' Boutchee said. When he returned, Akhtar still had his beard and said he couldn't shave it off, and he was fired.

"While the Muslim religion does not require a believer to grow a beard, if a man does, it is believed to bring him closer to Allah. However, if that person then shaves it, that act can have serious negative consequences, Boutchee said. The company defended its decision by noting that the city requires employees who handle food to be clean-shaven. But Boutchee said that's not the case. According to the state regulations, food service employees can wear a "beard restraint" that's similar to a hairnet. And if you're delivering wrapped food like a pizza in a box, you don't have to even wear a restraint. While Papa John's has changed its policy that banned beards and offered Ahktar his job back with a payment for back wages, the lawsuit was filed because the two sides couldn't agree to settlement terms. Boutchee said she couldn't discuss the settlement talks it had with Papa John's before filing the lawsuit but added that the company's offer was lacking."