New California Law Expands Protection in the Workplace to Religious Dress and Grooming

  • September 25, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed “The Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012” (WRFA) into law.  The new law amends the religious discrimination portions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“CFEHA”) to include more stringent religious accommodation requirements for employers with workers in California.  The law, signed on September 8, 2012, will take effect on November 1, 2013.

WRFA affects California employers in two key respects.  First, the law expands CFEHA’s definitions of “religion,” “religious observance,” and “religious belief” to include religious dress and grooming practices.  WRFA expands protected activity to encompass the wearing of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, and artifacts.  It specifically forbids  segregating an employee from the public (or other employees) as a reasonable accommodation  to his or her religious dress or grooming.

Second, the law creates a higher bar for employers to demonstrate “undue hardship.”  Prior to WRFA, the standard under California law was similar to that under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.  It permitted employers to demonstrate an undue hardship if the accommodation caused “de minimis” harm to the company.  Under the new law, an employer in California must demonstrate “significant difficulty or expense” for an undue burden to exists — a standard identical to the undue burden requirements in disability accommodation disputes.

What should employers do?  Before WRFA takes effect in 2013, employers should consider reviewing their current religious discrimination and accommodation policies.  In some instances, revisions to policies and additional training may be advisable.  With planning, employers can implement practices that not only welcome religious diversity and inclusion, but also protect the company’s legitimate business interests.

Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to discuss the new California law and other issues regarding religion in the workplace.

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