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Workplace Religious Freedom Act Moves Forward in CA Assembly

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California Assemblymember Mariko Yamada (center) is shown introducing the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. (Jeff Walters, Speakers Office of Member Services photos)
  • United States

    A California bill that would protect religiously-mandated clothing and headwear at the workplace passed out of a critical committee May 15 and is scheduled for a full vote on the State Assembly floor this week.

    AB 1964, authored by Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, a Democrat whose district runs from Vallejo through Dixon, Davis and bits of Sacramento, Calif., passed the Assembly Appropriations committee with only one opposing vote. It was initially scheduled to go to the Assembly floor May 21, but Yamada’s legislative aide, Rachel Linn, told India-West that the vote has been rescheduled to May 25. 

    The bill must then be passed by the State Senate before it is sent to California Governor Jerry Brown for approval. Linn revealed that Sen. Ted Lieu, who chairs the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations committee, has agreed to carry the bill in the Senate.

    “The bill has had very strong bipartisan support to this point,” she said, adding that the California business community has not mounted any significant opposition to the legislation, which mandates that religious clothing — including kirpans, the small swords worn by Sikhs, and hijabs worn by Muslim women — and faith-mandated hairstyles be protected under the provisions of the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

    The bill would prohibit segregating an employee from a customer if the worker is wearing religious garb or headwear.

    “Through this bill, we hope to clarify and strengthen workplace protections for all affected communities who need these protections,” Yamada told India-West in an e-mail in February, shortly after introducing the bill.

    A similar measure was passed by New York City last year.

    Under current law, employers must accommodate employees’ requests for religious holidays or time off to pray during the day, as needed. They also cannot discriminate against employees who wear a headscarf or turban or other religious headwear on the job.

    A loophole in current law allows employers to bypass these mandates without proving that religious accommodation imposes a significant financial burden.

    Under Yamada’s proposed legislation, employers will have to prove a significant financial hardship or impact if they fail to provide religious accommodation at the workplace.

    “No religious observer should be told they can work in the back of the store but not in the front,” testified civil rights attorney Amar Shergill April 18, when the bill was heard in the Assembly Labor and Employment committee.

    Amandeep Singh, a 22-year-old Indian American from Yuba City, Calif., told the committee, “My professional dream is to serve as a law enforcement officer. Being a police officer is an honorable career and a great way to serve and protect the public. And yet I have been told twice that my Sikh articles of faith will prevent me from achieving my dream.”

    In 2010, Singh applied to the California Highway Patrol, but was told he could not serve with his religious attire. Earlier this year, Singh applied to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, but was told he could only wear his religiously-mandated beard later in his career, when he became a detective.

    “This makes no sense. How can I become a detective and practice my religion later in my career if I am prevented from serving in the first place?” Singh queried.

    FEHA already implicitly protects religious observances in the workplace, but Linn told India-West that AB 1964 would make that mandate explicit. “Employers will have a clearer understanding of what they must do,” she said.

    Addressing concerns about kirpans in the workplace, Linn said, “Wearing a kirpan is no more dangerous than carrying scissors or a letter opener.”

    The Sikh Coalition has set up an online petition to generate support for the measure.

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