New California Law Protects Religious Dress and Grooming in the Workplace

On September 8, 2012, the Governor of California signed into law Assembly Bill 1964, amending the existing state law that protects individuals from employment discrimination based on race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, or sexual orientation.

The new law, which is effective January 1, 2013, expands the definition of “religious creed” to include religious dress and grooming practices that are part of an individual’s religious observance or belief. 

“Religious dress practice” will be construed broadly to include “wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face covering, jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed.” Religious grooming practice includes all forms of head, facial, and body hair that are likewise part of observing an individual’s religious creed.

California employers are required to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance of an employee, now including religious dress practice or religious grooming practice, unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship on the conduct of the business of the employer.  If a claim of discrimination is brought, which can arise based on adverse employment action, refusal to provide reasonable accommodation, or failure to hire, the employer will need to be able to demonstrate an “undue hardship” as defined in California law. For an employer to show it is unable to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance of an employee without undue hardship on the conduct of its business, it must demonstrate that it has explored all available reasonable means of accommodating the religious belief or observance (such as excusing the individual from the duties that conflict with his or her religious belief or permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another employee), but is unable to accommodate the religious belief or observance without undue hardship.

 Under the new law, an accommodation will not be considered reasonable if it requires an employee to be segregated from customers or the general public.


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