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Rasta Cook Says He Was Fired Over Dreadlocks

(CN) — A Rastafarian prep cook who worked at Walt Disney's Shades of Green resort claims he was fired for refusing to cut off his dreadlocks, and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has taken up his cause.

The agency sued HospitalityStaff, a staffing service that provides workers to the resort and other businesses in the greater Orlando area on Tuesday, claiming employment service violated the Civil when it refused to accommodate the religious beliefs of Courtnay Joseph, a practicing Rastafarian.

"HospitalityStaff deprived [Joseph] of equal employment opportunities and adversely affected his status as an employee because of his religion," the lawsuit alleges.

Joseph first applied to work for HospitalityStaff in 2011, and he wore his dreadlocks under his hat to the interview. The company placed him at the University of Central Florida, but soon moved him to Shades of Green Resort.

He had been working there 16 months when an inspector from Walt Disney World Cast Image and Appearance showed up. Joseph wasn't at work that day, but two co-workers were told they would have to cut their long hair, according to the lawsuit.

"[The inspector] indicated to HospitalityStaff that future compliance inspections would include the culinary staff removing their hats when asked," the lawsuit states.

Upon hearing this, HospitalityStaff Operations Manager Steve Averitt called Joseph on his day off and told him that he had to cut his hair to return to work.

Joseph said he wouldn't do it because it was against his religion. Averitt then fired Joseph, according to the lawsuit, which claims the cook was never offered another job through HospitalityStaff.

HospitalityStaff attorney John Bolanovich offered a different version of events.

"Many of Mr. Joseph's allegations in his lawsuit are simply false," Bolanovich wrote in an email. "He was never fired from HospitalityStaff. He abandoned his job. Further, he was offered a reasonable accommodation of working at any other property that did not have the same grooming guidelines. He would not have had to cut his hair, his pay would remain the same, and he could choose the property. Again, instead, Mr. Joseph chose to never return for an assignment."

Bolanovich added that the company routinely enforces relevant grooming guidelines with all of its employees, "regardless of their religion or religious preferences."

In an Orlando Sentinel article, HospitalityStaff managing partner Charles Savarese said he does not believe dreadlocks are necessary for Rastafarians.

"I lived in Jamaica for four years, and I can tell you, there's no law or religious rule that says Rastafarians need dreadlocks," he said.

EEOC attorney Robert Weisberg countered that necessity isn't the issue. There's no requirement that Jewish people wear Yarmulkes to work or that Muslim women wear headscarves, he said, but people who choose to wear them as part of their religion are still protected under the law.

Rastafari is a recognized religion that developed in Jamaica in the 1930s. Practitioners believe that Haile Selassie I, the King of Ethopia in 1930, is God and will return to Africa all the members of the black community who are living in exile as a result of the slave trade.

Rastas, as they are often called, wear their hair in dreadlocks as part of their spiritual beliefs, based on a passage in Leviticus 21:5: "They shall not make baldness upon their head." They regard marijuana as a religious herb and sometimes smoke it at meetings, and they refuse to eat pork or fish that are more than 12 inches long.

In an earlier lawsuit, the EEOC argued that dreadlocks have a cultural and racial significance, and are an "immutable characteristic" of the black hair identity. Therefore, it said, workplace grooming policies that banned dreadlocks discriminated against blacks. An Alabama trial court disagreed, and in 2014 threw out the lawsuit.

With the new suit in Orlando, the EEOC is asking the court to enjoin HospitalityStaff from discriminating against its employees on the basis of religion. The agency also seeks to "make Mr. Joseph whole" by asking the court to order the staffing company to pay him past and future wages, back-pay, out-of-pocket expenses and punitive damages. The suit also requests that Joseph be reinstated in his former position, or a similar one, with a religious accommodation.

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