Friday, April 22, 2005

A grocery store in Arlington has barred a Mennonite woman from wearing her traditional religious garb while at work.

Sarah O’Connor, 30, has worked as a cashier at the Harris Teeter store in the 2400 block of North Harrison Street since last month. A conservative Mennonite, she regularly wears a bonnet and a long dress with a short cape.

Her supervisor has ordered her to comply with the company’s dress code, which dictates khaki trousers or skirts, navy polo shirts, red aprons and name badges.

“I’m pretty upset, because I don’t think this is right. It’s considered discrimination, and I believe no one should be discriminated against, no matter what,” Mrs. O’Connor said. “Everybody is equal under God’s eyes.”

Jennifer Panetta, manager of communications for the North Carolina-based grocery chain, said all Harris Teeter employees receive the company’s guidebook, which details the dress code policy.

“At the time of hire, Mrs. O’Connor requested that Harris Teeter allow her to wear her bonnet, which is part of the Mennonite dress. We did accommodate this request,” Ms. Panetta said. “She began working in the Harris Teeter required uniform and her bonnet. She is now requesting to further revise the company’s dress code.”

Ms. Panetta said the company does make accommodations for religious and other sincerely held beliefs and has not received any other religion-based complaints about the uniform.

Mrs. O’Connor “would need to bring in a letter from her pastor stating that this is the required dress code for her religion at all times,” Ms. Panetta said. “After receiving this letter, Harris Teeter’s corporate office would review the uniform to make sure it meets the safety and sanitation guidelines required by the company.”

Ms. Panetta said Mrs. O’Connor may continue working in the uniform until a letter is received from her pastor.

But Mrs. O’Connor, who lives in Falls Church, said she is not a member of a local church. She said there are several conservative Mennonite churches in the Shenandoah Valley and near Manassas, but they do not reflect her beliefs.

She said she wore her bonnet and cape dress when she applied for the cashier’s position in mid-February. Her supervisor told her she would have to wear trousers until she purchased a khaki dress, Mrs. O’Connor said.

“I went to the fabric store and presented swatches of material to [my supervisor], and she approved one of my selections. Then, I took the material to my seamstress, an Amish woman who lives in Garrett County [in Maryland]. She made the dress and mailed it to me,” Mrs. O’Connor said.

When she went to work a week ago yesterday in her new khaki cape dress covered by the polo shirt, she was told her attire was inappropriate. She also was told that her cape had to be tucked in.

“I’m not willing to give up my dress code because that goes in direct violation of my religious rights. I can’t practice my religion freely while I am at work dressed in pants,” Mrs. O’Connor said.

She said she has contacted the Arlington Human Rights Commission and is seeking legal advice.

Title VII of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act bars employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of religion, but federal courts have ruled that employers can impose dress codes. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires employers to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs unless doing so would create “undue hardship.”

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