Employment Defense | Governor Brown Expands Religious Accommodation Requirements
Late last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1964 into law, clarifying the responsibilities of California employers with respect to religious accommodation in the workplace.
Also known as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, AB 1964 was introduced by Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada and supported by a variety of faith groups – including Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs.
Several years ago, one of Assemblywoman Yamada’s Sikh friends was accosted by guards with guns drawn when he reported for jury duty. Around that time, another incident occurred during which two elderly Sikh men were shot and killed in what was believed to be a hate crime. And last year, a Sikh man settled an employment discrimination lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) after the DOCR refused to hire him unless he shaved his beard.
In the wake of these incidents, Assemblywoman Yamada proposed AB 1964 to address what she found to be workplace discrimination faced by Sikhs and other religious minorities. The bill, whose number commemorates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, is considered to be landmark legislation in protecting the civil rights of citizens of all religious backgrounds.
Religious Discrimination Claims by Employees & the New Law
California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) has long prohibited discrimination against applicants and employees based on their religious beliefs, and required reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs and observances.
Assembly Bill 1964 clarifies that “religious beliefs” under FEHA include religious dress and grooming practices – and that employers cannot discriminate against applicants or employees based on those practices. The bill further clarifies what it means for an employer to reasonably accommodate such practices in the workplace.
According to the new law:
the term ‘religious dress practice’ shall be construed broadly to include the wearing of jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed. ‘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.
The legislation states it is an unlawful employment practice for an employer to:
refuse to hire or employ a person…or to discriminate against a person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of a conflict between the person’s religious belief or observance and any employment requirement, unless the employer…demonstrates that it has explored any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating the religious belief or observance or permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another person, but is unable to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance without undue hardship [on the company]….
The new law further explains, “An accommodation of an individual’s religious dress practice or religious grooming practice is not reasonable if the accommodation requires segregation of the individual from other employees or the public.”
Though intended to merely clarify existing law, the impact of AB 1964 could affect workplaces across California and bring increased focus on employer obligations to accommodate religious beliefs. Already on the rise, the new law could also bring an increase in religious discrimination lawsuits and claims.
In view of the above, employers are advised to review and update their anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity policies and consult employment counsel if and when questions about religious accommodation arise.
Nicole Kamm is a Management-side Employment Attorney who works with employers in all aspects of defense and claim prevention.