California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill providing workers in his state the nation’s strongest protections against religious discrimination. Spearheaded by Sikhs, AB1964—the Workplace Religious Freedom Act—guarantees equal employment opportunity to millions of Californians, regardless of their religion.
AB1964 has American pluralism written all over it. The bill was sponsored by the Sikh Coalition and authored by assembly member Mariko Yamada, who saw parallels between post-Sept. 11 discrimination and the imprisonment of her family in internment camps during the Second World War because of their Japanese ancestry. Over time, the bill gained support from labor and civil rights organizations, as well as interfaith groups representing Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Christians. In the end, it sailed through the California Legislature with bipartisan support.
The nation deserves to know why this law matters.
Federal law is supposed to provide a baseline for civil rights protection in the United States. In the context of workplace discrimination, however, the federal floor has fallen out beneath religious minorities. Although Congress intended for Americans of all faiths to enjoy equal employment opportunity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, unelected judges have interpreted Title VII so narrowly that it empowers employers to discriminate with impunity.
Under federal law, if a Sikh’s employability as a sales clerk or police officer is conditioned on shaving his beard or replacing his turban with a hat, an employer can defend its image policies without proving that accommodating a beard or turban would lead to significant economic hardship. Perversely, even in the absence of any economic hardship, an employer can attempt to satisfy its legal obligation to provide a ‘reasonable’ accommodation by segregating a Sikh from the public and paying him the same salary as a public-facing employee.
AB1964 restores the protective floor originally intended for Title VII. The new law requires employers to provide objective evidence of significant economic hardship before denying religious accommodations. AB1964 also rejects the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine by protecting religious observers from workplace segregation. Over time, state legislatures nationwide and the U.S. Congress can look to AB1964 as a model worthy of replication.
AB1964 in context
Even as Sikhs and other religious minorities celebrate AB1964, bigots regard it as an abomination. They balk at the specter of turbaned Sikh police officers protecting their communities. They recoil at the thought of Muslim women selling them clothes while wearing headscarves. And they look askance at Jews and Adventists for observing a Sabbath on a day other than Sunday. Other naysayers worry that AB1964 gives a blank check to religious observers to wear and do whatever they want.
As it turns out, AB1964 guarantees nothing to religious observers. It simply provides guidelines for determining the feasibility of religious accommodations on a case-by-case basis. If someone requests a religious accommodation that would impose a significant economic burden on an employer, the accommodation is not required. A worker’s religion cannot override the civil rights of customers or other employees, and cannot override health and safety requirements. Most importantly, a religious observer must be able to perform his or her job.
For religious minorities, AB1964 promises relief from restrictive image policies that prohibit workers from having beards or wearing head coverings. These policies are popular in the retail and hospitality industries and among law enforcement agencies. Although such policies are defended in terms of ‘professionalism’ and ‘uniformity,’ they are ultimately based on stereotypes about what American workers should look like. After all, what makes a beard unprofessional? And why are uniform policies crafted from a baseline that circularly assumes that religious minorities are out of uniform? I challenge naysayers to provide objective answers to these questions without making themselves vulnerable to charges of bias.
When my Sikh father immigrated to America in 1970 to practice architecture, employers told him that he could have a job only if he removed his turban and shaved his beard. He refused to abandon his faith and took his first job as an office boy, sharpening pencils and making coffee for his fellow architects. For decades, Sikh fathers like mine and countless religious minorities around the nation have been offered a similarly false choice between religious freedom and self-fulfillment in their chosen careers.
What we do for a living is a source of dignity. What we believe—and what we are religiously commanded to do in light of those beliefs—can give meaning and purpose to our lives. No person should have to choose needlessly between the very things that give them dignity and purpose. AB1964 honors this principle, and it is a momentous step forward for civil rights.