Can a dress code prohibit body art?

Business professors at Texas State University surveyed 150 people to get their opinions about body art and co-workers. Some of those surveyed had body art and some didn't. What the researchers found was that those surveyed "would rather not work with someone who has visible art in situations requiring face-to-face contact with customers, even if qualified for the job." Even people with body art were critical of others who did, finding body art "a little unsavory in co-workers."

So, OK, let's say your company agrees with this assessment and covers it in the company dress code. Would that company be in the clear legally? Maybe not.

In 2001, Costco employee Kimberly Cloutier took issue with a change in the company's dress code, particularly the addition of a "no facial jewelry besides earrings" provision. She claimed that her nose ring and other forms of body art were part of her religious beliefs. (She belonged to the little known Church of Body Modification, which was established in 1999 and has about 1,000 members.) The church "urges its members to be confident role models in learning, teaching and displaying body modification," which includes piercing, tattooing, and branding.

This may sound over the top, but the case was tied up in court for four years until the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed it. This was the court's ruling:

"It is axiomatic that, for better or for worse, employees reflect on employers. This is particularly true of employees who regularly interact with customers. ... Even if Cloutier did not regularly receive any complaints about her appearance, her facial jewelry influenced Costco's public image and, in Costco's calculation, detracted from its professionalism. ... Costco has made a determination that facial piercings, aside from earrings, detract from the 'neat, clean, and professional image' that it aims to cultivate. Such a business determination is within its discretion."

Of course, lawsuits of this kind also bring to mind other instances in which a religious adherence goes against a dress code. What if your company's dress code stipulates no hats? What do you do with those who wear Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans?

According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "the employer has an obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs." But that's not an absolute. If an accommodation would create an "undue hardship" on the employer, the employer is not obliged to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs.

I'd like to hear from you guys on two things -- your opinion of body art in the workplace and on dress codes in general.