WASHINGTON (RNS) A federal appeals court has sided with a prison system whose policy forbids Muslim women employees from wearing headscarves on the job.

In a 2-1 decision issued Tuesday (Aug. 3), the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the dispute a close case between the employees and The GEO Group, a private company that ran a prison in Delaware County, Penn.

But the court’s majority upheld a lower court decision against the employees, who were represented by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC has an enviable history of taking steps to enforce the prohibition against religious discrimination, wrote Judge Dolores Sloviter. On the other hand, the prison has an overriding responsibility to ensure the safety of its prisoners, its staff, and the visitors. A prison is not a summer camp and prison officials have the unenviable task of preserving order in difficult circumstances.

The three women ”a nurse, an intake specialist and a correctional officer ”sought an exception to a 2005 policy, arguing they had worn a head covering known as a khimar before the new dress code was instituted. The company cited safety concerns, such as the possible use of headgear to hide contraband or to strangle an employee.

In a strongly worded dissent, Judge A. Wallace Tashima, a senior judge from the Ninth Circuit who heard the case, said Geo based its decision not to exempt the women on hypothetical safety concerns and did not adequately prove how an exemption would be a hardship.

He said the majority makes a shambles of our Title VII religious accommodation jurisprudence.

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