Expanded Protection for Religious Dress and Grooming Practices

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[author: Gillian M. Ross]

On September 8, 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012 (Assembly Bill No. 1964) into law.   The new law amends the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which covers employers regularly employing five or more persons.  Under current law, employees are protected from discrimination in the workplace based on race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age or sexual orientation.  The new law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2013, expands these protections by including religious dress and grooming practices as part of an individual’s religious belief or observance. 

The new law provides that religious dress practices shall be construed broadly to include, “the wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of an individual’s observance of his or her religious creed.” Religious grooming practices are defined broadly to include “all forms of head, facial and body hair that are part of an individual’s observance of his or her religious creed.”

Consequently, employers must reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of employees who wear religious clothing, hairstyles and jewelry, such as headscarves, veils, turbans, crucifixes, etc. unless the accommodation would cause the employer undue hardship in the conduct of his/her business.  “Undue hardship” is defined in the new law as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense” and will undoubtedly encompass health and safety considerations.  The new law also specifically states that an employer who attempts to accommodate an employee’s religious dress or grooming practices by assigning them work that keeps them out of the view of customers or other employees is NOT providing a reasonable accommodation.

Employers are advised to review and, if necessary, revise their religious accommodation and dress code policies.