California Governor Edmund G. Brown signed the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act into law, which bars religious discrimination in the workplace. In particular, the new law expands employees’ protections under the Fair Employment and Housing Act by making clear that wearing religious clothing or a religious hairstyle as a belief or observance is protected. In particular, “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. Likewise, “religious grooming practice” shall be interpreted 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 also addresses religious accommodation in the workplace. Specifically, the new law requires that an employer reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance of an individual unless the accommodation would cause the employer undue hardship. To show “undue hardship” under the new law, an employer must show significant difficulty or expense to accommodate the employee’s belief or observance. (This standard is a greater burden than that of federal standards, which require only that the employer incur more than a minimal or de minimus cost if they were to accommodate the employee.) Finally, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act clarifies that an employer may not segregate employees from the public or other employees as a form of religious accommodation.
The California Workplace Religious Freedom Act will be effective on January 1, 2013. In response to this new law, employers with employees in California should review and potentially re-write their discrimination and harassment policies. Additionally, if necessary, employers should revise their dress code and religious accommodation policies.