“Pants-Only” Policy Upheld Against Free Exercise Claim in Retaliatory Termination Case

Can a public employer require a woman to wear pants, even against her religious beliefs?  In its brief opinion in Finnie v. Lee County, Mississippi, a panel of the Fifth Circuit left that question unanswered given the particular circumstances of the case.

After working for a Mississippi Sheriff’s Department for years, Ms. Crystal Finnie converted to the Pentecostal religion, which she told the court, meant she could no longer wear “‘clothing pertaining to a man’s garments,’ such as pants.” But her employer, the Sheriff’s Department, required pants as part of the uniform and told Ms. Finnie that she would have to “wear pants or resign.”IMG_8172_Edit__07235.1364412413.1280.1280

Shortly after filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and requesting a transfer to a clerical position where she could wear a skirt and keep her job, Ms. Finnie was fired.

She then filed suit. She argued that the policy violated her First Amendment right to exercise her religion, “constituted unlawful gender and religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and amounted to unlawful retaliation under Title VII.”

But the underlying question was whether Ms. Finnie was terminated as retaliation, and the Fifth Circuit panel held that she did not meet the burden to show she would not have been terminated “but for” her EEOC complaint.  Yet the opinion does not clarify whether her dismissal based upon her religious objection to the dress code would have been actionable.

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