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New California law clarifies rules for employers about religion

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that will help battle religious and national origin discrimination, particularly against Sikhs and Muslims, in the state. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act reiterates the prohibition of workplace discrimination against employees who wear turbans, beards, hijabs or yarmulkes.

Brown also signed a bill that will require the California State Board of Education to include Sikh history, tradition and theology in history and social sciences curriculums. Hundreds of Sikhs attended a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento, California, where Brown made remarks on why he signed the bills into law.

The Act, which takes effect in Januray, changes and strengthens California's Fair Employment and Housing Act in three ways:

  • Employers must now prove with objective evidence that religious accommodation would create a significant hardship in order to justify noncompliance with the law. This is a change from the former standard that required the employer to show only minimal hardship.
  • Religious clothing, hairstyles and grooming count as forms of religious belief or observance.
  • An employer cannot hide an employee from customers or the public and consider that action as an accommodation of the employee's religious faith.

This legislation does not guarantee that every Sikh or Muslim who sues an employer for religious discrimination will prevail. However, the law will make it harder for employers to refuse religious accommodation and place a higher burden on them to demonstrate why they are unable to do so. People who have been refused religious accommodation can talk to an employment attorney to learn their options.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Jerry Brown signs law protecting Sikhs, Muslims, from workplace bias," Patrick McGreevy, Sept. 8, 2012

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