DOJ files lawsuit against Texas prison agency for denying religious accomodation

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The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against a Texas prison agency for allegedly denying religious accommodation to an employee over wearing a head covering. 

Franches Spears, who was a records clerk within the agency’s Pam Lychner State Jail near Humble, Texas, was first put on leave with pay and later terminated after wearing a head covering “as an expression of her Ifa faith.” 

“Employers cannot require employees to forfeit their religious beliefs or improperly question the sincerity of those beliefs,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement. 

“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 federal lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Texas on Friday against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). It alleges that the agency violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The lawsuit alleges that Spears requested to wear the head covering in accordance with her religion. TDCJ refused to accommodate her request, first suspending her without compensation and later terminating her employment after not wanting to remove her head scarf, according to court documents. 

Spears wore the head covering in September 2019. After over a month of wearing it without objections, she was directed to human resources and informed of breaching the agency’s “business-casual uniform and grooming standards for non-uniformed employees,” according to the complaint. 

There, she elaborated on her Ifa faith but was allegedly told by Human Resources Specialist Elizabeth Fisk “basically you just pray to a rock.”

Spears was told to complete the “Religious Accommodation Form,’ but was cautioned that “your accommodation may not ever get approved.”

“Spears felt compelled to adhere to the tenets of her faith and declined to remove her head covering to continue working. As a result, TDCJ placed her on indefinite unpaid leave,” the complaint alleges. 

Apart from seeking a permanent injunction to stop the prison agency from performing discrimination based on religion, the DOJ is seeking to “fully compensate her for the pain and suffering” caused by TDCJ.

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