This past summer, California judge John Meyer concluded that yoga, as being taught by a public school, was not advancing or promoting religion. In 2011, Encinitas Union School District in Encinitas, California began a pilot yoga program in one of its elementary schools. Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, whose children learn in the elementary school, filed suit claiming that the school was promoting Eastern religion. Judge Meyer found that the school district developed a version of yoga distinct from Ashtanga yoga and was not promoting religion. Whether the issue is religion in public schools or employment discrimination based on religion, courts often have to decide what is considered a religion that is protected (or not) by law.
Employment discrimination law is clear
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) make it illegal to discriminate against employees or job candidates because of their religion. The laws also prescribe that employers make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious practices, unless accommodating them would cause an undue hardship.
California’s new Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) goes further in three areas. It applies a stricter standard that requires employers to demonstrate that an accommodation would be a significant difficulty or financial expense. WRFA also says that separate accommodations are not reasonable. Finally, WRFA says that religious clothing and artifacts are included in religious beliefs and observances.
What is religion?
We understand that employment discrimination based on religion is illegal, but what is a religion that is protected by California law? FEHA says that religious belief as used in the statute includes observance of a Sabbath or other holy days and reasonable time necessary for travel prior and subsequent to a religious observance. FEHA defines religious creed as beliefs, observations, or practices which a person sincerely holds and which occupy in his life or her life a place of importance parallel to that of traditionally organized religions.
California case law further reveals what makes something a religion in California. In a 1996 case, Smith v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission, the California Supreme Court concluded that a religious belief is more than a “philosophy or way of life.” In a 1958 case frequently cited by courts, Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, Justice Raymond Peters said that the only proper inquiry is whether the belief occupies the same place in the lives of its adherents the way traditional religions occupy the lives of its believers. In a 2002 decision, Friedman v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, the California Court of Appeals held that veganism is a philosophy and not a religion.
California law provides significant protection of your religious beliefs in the workplace.