Originally Published on August 4, 2018; Updated/Revised on May 15, 2019
Does California law protect employees from religious discrimination?
Yes. Under California law, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on his/her “religious creed.”
What qualifies as a “religious creed” under California law?
Under California law, “religious creed” includes any traditionally recognized religion. In addition, beliefs, observances, or practices also constitute a “religious creed” if (a) an individual sincerely holds these beliefs, observances, or practices and (b) these beliefs, observances, or practices occupy in his/her life a place of importance parallel to that of traditionally recognized religions. In other words, the focus is on what the individual himself sincerely believes, not necessarily on what others would consider to constitute a religion.
Of note, “religious creed” includes all aspects of religious belief, observance, and practice, including religious dress practice and religious grooming practice (both of which are discussed below).
What is a “religious dress practice?”
“Religious dress practice” includes, but is not limited to, the wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, and any other item that is part of an individual’s observance of his or her religious creed.
What is a “religious grooming practice?”
“Religious grooming practice” includes, but is not limited to, all forms of head, facial, and body hair that are part of an individual’s observance of his/her religious creed.
An example of alleged discrimination based on religious grooming is the case Oberoi v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 34-2009-00054595 (Sacramento Superior Court, filed July 31, 2009). Oberoi, a Sikh man, applied for a security guard position at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”). Because the Sikh faith prohibits men from shaving their beards, Oberoi refused to shave his beard and the CDCR did not allow Oberoi to continue with the application process as a result. The CDCR argued that there are times when security guards must wear gas masks and that facial hair would prevent the mask from fitting closely to the face. In response, Oberoi argued that in prior employment positions, he had been able to wear gas masks and respirators by simply rolling up his beard and without the need to shave his beard. Oberoi’s case against the CDCR eventually settled.
When must an employer provide an employee with a “reasonable accommodation?”
If (a) an employee has a sincerely held religious belief, (b) the employer was aware of that belief, and (c) the employee’s belief conflicted with one of his/her job responsibilities, then the employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation – unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation is unreasonable because it would impose an undue hardship (which is defined below) on the employer.
What is a “reasonable accommodation?”
A reasonable accommodation eliminates the conflict between an employee’s religious practice and a job requirement. A reasonable accommodation includes, but is not limited to, job restructuring, job reassignment, modification of work practices, allowing time off to avoid a conflict with an employee’s religious observances, dress and appearance policy exemptions, and transfers.
As an example, if an employee’s religion requires him/her to attend an annual convention during the upcoming weekend — but the employee is regularly scheduled to work on weekends — then a reasonable accommodation might involve changing his/her schedule so that the employee is not required to work that particular weekend.
Can my employer segregate me because of my religious dress or grooming practice?
No, your employer may not do so. It is not a reasonable accommodation to “accommodate” your religious dress or grooming practice by segregating you from other employees or from the public (i.e., customers or clients).
For instance, an employer may not segregate an employee, who is of Sikh faith and wears a turban, by offering him positions that would prevent the employee from interacting with customers (e.g., assigning the employee to the back office). An employer cannot argue that segregating the employee was “justified” because of the employer’s fear about how customers would react to the employee’s religious dress and/or because of the employer’s fear that the religious dress would project the “wrong image.”
If you believe that you have been subjected to religious discrimination at work, call ((916) 612-0326) or email ([email protected]) Finley Employment Law today. We serve clients throughout California, including Sacramento, Roseville, Walnut Creek, San Ramon, and Concord.
The information in this blog post is for general informational and advertising purposes only and is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Instead, you should speak with a California employment attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.