California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law earlier this month the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, AB 1964, a bill that expands the prohibition against religious discrimination by employers. This new law mandates that workers receive equal protection despite their religious beliefs or appearance while protecting those who wear religious attire. The bill reportedly was numbered after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a series of federal statutes that were among the first to outlaw employment discrimination in the United States.
The new law gives workers the right to express their faith in their dress and appearance; for instance, by wearing turbans or beards (like those worn by Sikh men), yarmulkes (like those donned by Jewish men), or hijabs (as adorned by Muslim women). Additionally, it makes it unlawful to segregate such employees; for example, by making them work in areas out of the public view on account of their appearance. The law also requires employers to provide religious accommodations to workers unless the requested accommodation would result in significant difficulty or expense. Because the new law does not expressly address the topic, it remains to be seen whether companies whose employees wear uniforms must allow workers to modify or discard the employer’s regalia.
Employers who wish to reduce the risk of exposure to liability under this new law should consider revising their dress-code policies, reevaluating job assignments for their religiously attired employees, and providing additional training to their human-resources professionals. Prudent employers also should consult legal counsel about such steps and to weigh their options when faced with an employee’s request for a religious accommodation.