American Turban

Bringing WRFA to California

California Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (photo: sikhcoalition.org)

California Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (photo: sikhcoalition.org)

As discussed often on this blog, employment discrimination is still a challenge for many religious and visible minorities (such as Sikhs, who fall under both categories).  According to the Sikh Coalition (a US-based Sikh advocacy organization):

Sikhs suffer high levels of workplace discrimination because of their Sikh identity.  Many are told to shave their beards; others are told to remove their turbans; some are told that they can only work out of public view.  If enacted, WRFA would make it harder in each of these cases for California employers to discriminate against Sikhs.   

As law student Kiran Preet Kaur presented at the recent Sikholars conference, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not adequately protect civil rights where employment discrimination is concerned. Legal precedent based on employment discrimination cases has established a minimal threshold that allows employers to claim that the accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs would cause the employer too much of a financial burden.  As a result, Sikhs in particular struggle with this type of discrimination as some employers attempt to shun on suspect grounds the accommodation of articles of faith such as the Sikh turban, hair, and/or others.

Organizations such as SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) and the Sikh Coalition have been working towards making it harder for employers to engage in such discrimination.  In particular, various attempts at passing a “Workplace Religious Freedom Act” (WRFA) at various levels have met with mixed success.  At the federal level, Senator John Kerry has twice introduced a federal bill under this name, but the legislation has not made it through the process for consideration as law, and as such, federal law defaults to Title VII.

However, passing such a bill has been more successful at local levels.  The State of Oregon passed a WRFA almost two years ago, while a similar bill was under consideration in the State of Maryland (but it does not appear to have passed). More recently, the effort by the Sikh Coalition was key to the passage of New York city’s WRFA last August, making accommodation by employers more likely in that city. The Sikh Coalition is now bringing forth an effort to have a similar law passed in the state of California:

California Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (AD-8), in collaboration with the Sikh Coalition’s Western Region office, has taken steps toward introducing a California version of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA)…

…WRFA would still allow employers to deny religious accommodations, but only by proving that such accommodations would impose a significant expense on the employer.

Because it usually costs employers little or nothing to accommodate Sikhs, the new legal standard under WRFA would make it harder for employers to discriminate against Sikhs.  In addition, WRFA would make it illegal for employers to segregate Sikhs from customers and the general public.

Assemblywoman Yamada, who has been a friend to California’s Sikhs, proposed this bill (AB 1964) on February 23.

California is home to one of the largest population of Sikhs in this country and was also the home of the recent case of Trilochan Singh Oberoi, who was discriminated against by California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  His case eventually was settled out of court.  However, as that case demonstrated, employment discrimination can even occur among public employers, and so it will be interesting to see whether a WRFA can be legislated at the state level in California.

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