California Governor Jerry Brown made history Sept. 8 as he signed into law the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, putting into place the nation’s strictest law prohibiting religious discrimination at the workplace.
During an outdoor rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Brown signed AB 1964, sponsored through the State Legislature by Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, a Democrat from Davis. The legislation was supported by several civil rights organizations, including the Sikh Coalition. Brown also signed SB 1540, sponsored by Senator Loni Hancock, a Democrat from Oakland, which would urge the California State Board of Education to consider including the history and culture of Sikhs into instructional material.
“Sikh Americans are loyal citizens who have been targeted because of widespread ignorance of their religion and culture,” said Brown at the rally, which was organized by the North American Punjabi Association. “The bills I sign today aim to ensure that Californians learn about our Sikh citizens as well as protect all of us from job discrimination based on religious observances,” he said.
“This bill is dedicated to all those who have suffered the indignities of ignorance and discrimination in the workplace because of the tenets of their faith,” stated Yamada. “No longer will it be legal to segregate a worker from public view because their appearance did not fit a corporate image,” she said in a press statement.
AB 1964 clarifies and strengthens existing federal law prohibiting employers from discriminating against their employees for wearing religiously-mandated clothing or hairstyles. Sikhs who wear turbans and beards and Muslim women who wear headscarves would especially benefit from the new legislation, said the bill’s supporters.
The new law also prohibits employers from segregating employees because of their religious practices. Employees who wear religiously-mandated garb have often been shifted to back-of-the-store positions, where they are invisible to customers.
Employees already receive some protection against religious discrimination at the worksite with the federal Fair Employment and Housing Act. But supporters of the legislation note that FEHA has several loopholes and sets minimal standards for such protection.
Workplace religious discrimination was highlighted last year, when San Francisco, Calif., teenager Hani Khan sued retail clothing giant Abercrombie and Fitch for forbidding her from wearing her hijab – headscarf – on the job because it did not fit the company’s image. Notably, Abercrombie maintained such a position even though Khan worked in the stockroom and out of view of customers.
In another such case, former Indian naval officer Trilochan Singh Oberoi was denied employment as a prison guard by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for refusing to shave his religiously-mandated beard. After a six-year battle with the state, Oberoi reached a settlement last October and is now employed in an administrative post within the state prison system.
“Federal law provides a floor,” said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition. “Unfortunately, that floor has some trap doors,” Singh told India-West, adding that current law offers loopholes for employers to escape the mandates of federal law.
“AB 1964 restores the floor, closes the loopholes and adds another layer of protection,” stated Singh, noting that under current federal law, employers are not required to provide objective evidence that accommodating an employee’s religious practices will cause undue hardship to the business. “Many employers were making armchair assumptions,” he said.
The new legislation requires California employers to provide concrete evidence that accommodating an employee’s religious practices would cause significant hardship to the business, such as loss of earnings.
“It costs nothing to accommodate a turban or a beard,” said Singh.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics cited by the Sikh Coalition, religious discrimination cases rose 9.5 percent in 2011, contributing to the nearly 100,000 charges of employer discrimination nationwide. In California, employers faced over 500 such cases. AB 1964 was supported by 15 civil rights organizations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations and several Indian American and Jewish organizations.