Feds accuse Texas prison agency of discriminating against employee for wearing a headscarf

The Department of Justice sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Friday accusing the prison system of discriminating against its employee based on their religion. (Martin Do Nascimento For The Texas Tribune, Martin Do Nascimento For The Texas Tribune)

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The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Friday accusing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice of discriminating against one of its former employees based on her religious beliefs.

The federal lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of Texas, alleges that the state agency denied Franches Spears religious accommodations by refusing to allow the non-uniformed employee to wear a head covering, according to court documents.

“Employers cannot require employees to forfeit their religious beliefs or improperly question the sincerity of those beliefs,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “This lawsuit is a reminder to all employers of their clear legal obligation to offer reasonable religious accommodations. In our country, employers cannot force an employee to choose between their faith and their job.”

The lawsuit alleges the Texas prison agency’s refusal to accommodate Spears’ religious practice violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“TDCJ does not comment on pending litigation, but the agency respects the religious rights of all employees and inmates,” Hannah Haney, the agency’s deputy director of communications, told The Texas Tribune in a statement.

In July 2019, Spears was hired to work as a clerk at the Pam Lychner State Jail, a TDCJ facility in Humble, northeast of Houston.

In line with her Ifa beliefs, Spears began wearing a headscarf to work in September 2019. Ifa, a West African religion, dictates that some of its practitioners cover their “head with a head dressing during periods of religious ceremony, mourning, or to protect her spiritual power,” the complaint read.

Shortly after Spears began wearing the covering, she met with Human Resources Specialist Elizabeth Fisk to explain the religious significance behind the head dressing. According to the complaint, Fisk responded to Spears’ by saying, “Basically you just pray to a rock.”

Fisk told Spears that she could either remove her headscarf and continue working or go home until the agency decided on her religious accommodation request. TDCJ placed Spears on unpaid leave, according to court filings.

“TDCJ further questioned the sincerity of Spears’s faith when Bailey mailed a letter demanding documentation or a statement from a religious institution pointing to the specific Ifa belief or doctrine that supported the necessity of Spears’s head covering,” the complaint read, referring to testimony from TDCJ’s Religious Accommodation Coordinator Terry Bailey.

While TDCJ was considering Spears’ request for religious accommodation she received a “salary warrant letter” from the agency in November 2019. She understood the letter as a termination notice demanding the return of TDCJ property, like identification cards and keys, in order to receive her final paycheck.

In February 2020, Spears filed a complaint against TDCJ with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal agency found reasonable cause that TDCJ discriminated against Spears and attempted to resolve the issue through mediation. When that failed, the EEOC referred the case to the DOJ.

The complaint asks TDCJ to compensate Spears for lost wages and other damages related to the incident. Additionally, the Justice Department wants the Texas agency to institute religious accommodation policies.

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