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Can a Pagan Priest With a Beard Work in Food Service?

Such are the questions that keep Christopher Harristhal busy

Published in 2008 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

Christopher Harristhal’s client was in a quandary. The restaurant owner had hired a man for a supervisor job, which would require food handling. Only one stipulation: no beards. 

“At the time of the interview he did have a beard and was told the restaurant’s policy that the beard be shaved or at a minimum neatly trimmed,” says Harristhal, an employment attorney and shareholder at Larkin Hoffman. “So he comes to work; he hasn’t shaved. A few weeks go by and he is talked to. At that point, he says, ‘I’m a Pagan. In fact, I’m a priest in the Pagan faith and as part of my Paganism I have to have a goatee.’”

The employer ended up firing the employee, who then sued for religious discrimination. The case is still under investigation, and Harristhal has yet to confirm if Pagan priests are indeed required to go sans Norelco. 

Just another day in the life of Harristhal, who has developed an expertise in helping employers accommodate, or not accommodate, the religious needs of their employees. It’s an evolving area of law. Harristhal spends much of his time working with employers who have Muslim employees. “A lot of the problems involve shift accommodations for prayer breaks,” says Harristhal, who recently penned a Star Tribune editorial on the matter and even discussed religious accommodations on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight. 

At the root of the problem, says Harristhal, is our culture’s built-in accommodation for employees of Jewish or Christian faith. These folks can easily get around working on Saturdays and Sundays. However, with Muslims, who must pray five times each day and regard Friday as an important holy day, accommodation in our Western 9-to-5 world makes for a balancing act. Still, the law requires employers to make, as Harristhal puts it, a “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s religious needs without causing “undue hardship” to other employees.

In addition, Harristhal has handled several cases concerning religious garb. “Certainly, when it comes to loose clothing around moving equipment, there’s a very solid basis for the employer to insist the clothing not be worn,” says Harristhal. He adds that employers often have the right to insist upon “uniformity and professionalism.”

Of course, Muslims and Pagans aren’t the only employees seeking accommodation. Harristhal recalls the well-known Chicago appellate court case concerning a Christian pharmacist who refused to fill birth control prescriptions. “The employer allowed the pharmacist to signal to another employee if he needed someone to handle a contraceptive issue,” says Harristhal. But in the end, the court found, the pharmacist avoided contact with all manner of customers for fear of handling the offending products, which placed an unfair burden on his fellow pharmacists.

It might be tempting to say that Harristhal pulls off quite a magic act in negotiating settlements for his clients. In his case you could say this literally. A magician since he was 6, his act helped pay for his schooling at Hamline University and the University of Minnesota Law School. 

“I found it was great cross-training for trial work,” he says. “You learn how to work a crowd — and part of working a crowd is working a jury.”

Clients are certainly grateful to him for making their problems disappear. 

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