California Expands Religious Accommodation Requirements
California’s Governor has signed into law AB 1964, which modifies California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act’s provisions relating to employment discrimination based on one’s religious beliefs. FEHA has always prohibited discrimination against applicants and employees based on their religious beliefs, and has also required reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious beliefs and observances, so this much is not new. The new law makes clear that “religious beliefs” include religious dress practices and religious grooming practices, meaning that employers cannot discriminate against applicants or employees bases on these practices and must also reasonably accommodate such practices in the workplace. According to the new law, “religious dress practice” shall be construed broadly to include the wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, 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 new law further explains, in pertinent part, that it is an unlawful employment practice:
(l) (1) For an employer or other entity covered by this part to refuse to hire or employ a person or to refuse to select a person for a training program leading to employment or to bar or to discharge a person from employment or from a training program leading to employment, 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 or other entity covered by this part demonstrates that it has explored any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating the religious belief or observance, including the possibilities of excusing the person from those duties that conflict with his or her 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. Religious belief or observance, as used in this section, includes, but is not limited to, observance of a Sabbath or other religious holy day or days, reasonable time necessary for travel prior and subsequent to a religious observance, and religious dress practice and religious grooming practice.
(2) 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.
While AB 1964’s changes to FEHA arguably are intended simply to clarify existing law, the express modification of FEHA and highlighting of religious discrimination issues may lead to increased focus and scrutiny in this area and, thus, a greater likelihood of religious discrimination suits against employers.