In 2012, there were two significant achievements for Sikh Americans in the realm of employment discrimination on each side of the country: the decision by Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department to accept observant Sikhs as full police officers, and the signing of a workplace religious freedom act in California. Both achievements have the potential to act as precedents for further success in dealing with employment discrimination that Sikhs have faced in the United States due to lack of accommodation of our articles of faith.
In May, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, D.C., announced that they would begin fully accommodating observant Sikhs to serve as police officers in their department, becoming the largest police department in the United States to do so:
“I have to remind myself sometimes that in my lifetime women were not allowed to ride in patrol cars along with men, and now I’m chief,” [Chief Cathy Lanier] said at a news conference that was attended by members of the local Sikh community.
Lanier said law enforcement works better when members of the public see themselves mirrored in their local police department, adding: “To me this is a common-sense decision. It is important that we have representation from all of our communities across Washington, D.C.”
Thus far, Sikhs have been barred from being able to fully serve as a police officer in the country’s largest police departments, and even for military service, Sikhs must apply for an exemption to be able to serve. As I wrote at the time:
Despite the long history of Sikhs serving in military and law enforcement around the world, such an accommodation is welcome but somewhat rare news in the United States. In other jurisdictions, observant Sikhs are not permitted to serve as police officers if they maintain their religious articles of faith, particularly uncut hair/beard and the turban, even when these departments do not incur any undue hardship or burden in accommodating the Sikhs’ religious articles into their police uniform.
One of the admirable aspects of this new policy was that it came as a result of a collaborative relationship between the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and the MPD, rather than as a result of a lawsuit. Further, more than allowing Sikhs to serve in the Washington, D.C. police department, the decision to make the accommodation sets a precedent for other law enforcement agencies across the country.
Four months after the MPD annoucement on the east coast, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed into law a bill called the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act, also known as AB 1964. The signing of the bill was the culmination of the efforts by the Sikh Coalition, California Assembly Member Mariko Yamada (who introduced and championed the bill), and California’s Sikh community, to pass legislation that would strengthen protections against religious discrimination in the workplace that affects Sikhs and other religious minorities in particular:
Because Sikh articles of faith do not conform to stereotypes about what American workers should look like, some private-sector employers reject qualified Sikh job applicants or force them into segregated positions, out of public view.
While workplace discrimination is technically a violation of federal law, loopholes in the law allow employers to segregate religious observers and reject religious accommodation requests without showing that such accommodations would entail a significant difficulty or expense.
AB 1964 is designed to eliminate this ambiguity by clarifying that employers can deny a request for religious accommodation only if it imposes a “significant difficulty or expense” on the employer. AB 1964 also clarifies that an employer cannot segregate someone because they happen to wear a religious headcovering, and employees may keep a beard in accordance with their religion. However, religious accommodations would not be required if they interfere with the civil rights of others or prevent religious observers from complying with health or safety requirements.
Having gone into effect on January 1 of this year, the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act is a significant achievement. Sikhs and other religious minorities in the seventh largest economy in the world will directly benefit from this protection against workplace discrimination. The spade work done by the Sikh Coalition in partnership with Assembly Member Yamada is a great story in of itself about collaboration and building bridges across communities in the cause for social justice:
[Mariko] Yamada sees the campaign for AB 1964 as an example of Asian Americans building coalitions across diverse communities for the common good. “The collaboration and sense of unity among diverse organizations in support of AB 1964, regardless of race and religion, is inspiring,” she said. “What this bill underscores for every community is the importance of civic engagement and coalition building.”
You can visit all posts on this blog related to the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act here.
These successes are the result of the work of our advocacy organizations and are large strides forward in securing our civil rights in this country. As Sikhs in Washington, D.C., and in California will benefit, we can hope that other jurisdictions will follow these leads. For the impact and significance of such achievements, these victories in employment equality are among the Top 5 Sikh American Stories of 2012.
Next Top 5 Sikh American Story of 2012: The inspiring grace of Balpreet Kaur.