California Increases Protection of Religious Expression in the Workplace

[author: Julia Brodsky]

Effective January 1, 2013, California employers will be required to accommodate their employees' religious dress and grooming practices. Governor Brown has signed into law the "Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012" (authored by Assemblymember Mariko Yamada (D-Davis)), which specifies that religious dress and grooming practices shall be considered a protected religious observance under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The bill defines "religious dress practice" to broadly include "the wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed." "Religious grooming practice" is defined broadly to include "all forms of head, facial, and body hair that are part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed." The bill expressly prohibits segregation from the public or other employees as a form of accommodation. Employers should recognize that the new law increases the likelihood that employees or applicants who avail themselves of such religious dress and/or grooming practices may claim that any adverse job action that they happen to suffer (even if unrelated to such practices) is retaliation by the employer for the expression of their rights under the statute.