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Bill protects religious garb, grooming in the workplace

Under AB 1964 signed by Gov. Brown, California employers face new restrictions against shunting Sikh and Muslim workers out of public view for wearing turbans, beards and hijabs.

September 09, 2012|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • Kirpajot Singh, 6, of Westlake Village gets help last month with his turban from Taranjot Singh, 16, before the start of services at the Khalsa Care Foundation, a Sikh temple in Pacoima.
Kirpajot Singh, 6, of Westlake Village gets help last month with his turban… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — California employers face new restrictions against shunting Sikh and Muslim workers out of public view for wearing turbans, beards and hijabs, under a bill signed Saturday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The measure could affect workplaces from Disneyland to San Quentin Prison.

"This bill, AB 1964, makes it very clear that wearing any type of religious clothing or hairstyle, particularly such as Sikhs do … is protected by law and nobody can discriminate against you because of that," Brown told some 400 Sikhs and supporters at a rally of the North American Punjabi Assn. on the steps of the Capitol. Brown also signed SB 1540, which requires the state Board of Education to consider a new history framework for schools that the governor said will include "the role and contributions of the Sikh community in California."

A series of court cases have muddied the water on what employers must do to accommodate the religious practices of workers, said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition, a national civil rights group based in New York City. The new law will clarify the requirements.

"It's needed because Sikhs and other religious minorities continue to experience job discrimination on account of their religion,'' Singh said.

A study by the coalition found that 12% of Sikhs in the San Francisco Bay Area have been subjected to some form of workplace discrimination.

The new law restricts employers from segregating a worker from customers or the public as a means of accommodating his or her religious beliefs. It says employers must accommodate a worker's religious practices unless doing so creates "significant difficulty or expense.''

It also specifies that religious dress and grooming qualify as protected observances.

"An employee should not have to work in the back of the store in order to observe his or her faith,'' said Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), who wrote the bill.

Supporters say AB 1964, named after the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, could help in cases like that of a Muslim woman who sued Disneyland last month, alleging that she was fired from a hostess position after refusing to remove her head scarf at work.

Disneyland officials said they offered to provide her with a company-approved scarf for work.

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said his Muslim client has a solid case of discrimination, but the new law "adds another layer of protection.''

Singh hopes the measure, which takes effect Jan. 1, will also pressure law-enforcement agencies and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reconsider their workplace practices, which include a general ban on beards for prison guards. Some law enforcement agencies bar officers from wearing turbans, Singh said.

Arguments that beards and turbans conflict with efforts to create uniformity and discipline in law-enforcement ranks are "tenuous," Singh said.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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