[author: Beth Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor]
In the wake of the tragic shooting in August at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and on the eve of the 11th anniversary of September 11th, California Governor Jerry Brown has signed two bills in California directly addressing religious discrimination and accommodation and the teaching of tolerance and diversity in schools. The new laws aim to eliminate discrimination and bias against Sikhs, Muslims and other religious groups in the workplace.
The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, Assembly Bill 1964, amends the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and explicitly provides for religious accommodation in employment, making sure that employees receive equal protection under the law. +2011 Bill Text CA A.B. 1964; +2011 Bill Tracking CA A.B. 1964. Specifically, the law requires an employer to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance of an individual unless the accommodation would cause the employer undue hardship. It eliminates confusion between the federal and state definitions of undue hardship stating that California has a higher significant difficulty or expense hurdle for religious accommodation instead of the de minimus standard.
Further, the law specifies that religious clothing and hairstyles qualify as a religious belief or observance. The law provides that religious dress practice 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 the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed. Moreover, religious grooming practice shall be construed 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.
Lastly, the law provides that an accommodation of an individual's religious dress practice or religious grooming practice that would require the employee to be segregated from the public or other employees is not a reasonable accommodation. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2013.
Further, Senate Bill 1540 requires that the State Board of Education consider adopting a revised curriculum framework and evaluation criteria for instructional materials in history and social science which will include information relative to the history, tradition, theology and role of Sikhs and Korean Americans, among others. +2011 Bill Text CA S.B. 1540; +2011 Bill Tracking CA S.B. 1540.
These laws were passed in response to an increase in religious discrimination lawsuits and court cases regarding religious accommodation in the workplace. The new laws seek to clarify employers' obligations and require employers to meet a higher standard and objectively demonstrate how granting a religious accommodation would be a significant difficulty or expense. Because the law provides that religious dress and grooming qualify as protected religious observances, employees who wear any type of religious clothing or hairstyle such as turbans, hijabs and yarmulkes will be protected from discrimination and harassment. Further, the new law prohibits employers from separating employees who wear religious clothing from customers and the public as a way of accommodating the employee's religious beliefs.
As a result of these new laws, employers should revisit and if necessary revise their discrimination and harassment policies as well as religious accommodation and dress code policies accordingly. Employers should aim to accommodate all religious practices, observances or requests to wear a religious hairstyle or clothing unless granting the accommodation would cause the employer significant difficulty or expense. Employers should make sure that there is a legitimate business reason for any adverse action taken against an employee who openly practices or observes his or her religion in the workplace. Lastly, employers should implement training regarding tolerance and religious discrimination for all employees and supervisors.