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Religious Harassment & Discrimination: What’s the Law in California?

California law is very protective of the rights of its citizens to be free from all forms of discrimination.  California has long required businesses to accommodate the religious beliefs of workers. Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) includes religious creed in the list of protected categories. California Assembly Bill 1964 amended Government Code sections 12926 and 12940 provide further clarification that the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s (FEHA) discrimination protections and reasonable accommodation requirements give an individual the right to wear religious dress and engage in grooming practices consistent with their religious beliefs.   FEHA requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs and observances if reasonably possible without undue hardship. Courts have held that this duty extends beyond accommodating only required religious tenets.  The law protects an employee’s right to engage observances, to attend services, and to pray.   Reasonable accommodation of a request for religious accommodation means making job modifications that enable an individual to exercise personal religious beliefs.  The employer may be required, depending on the situation to make scheduling changes to permit religious observances, and permitting dress and grooming practices and permitting employees to pray at work in some. Religious accommodations that might impose an undue hardship on business might be unreasonable and may not be required.

Accommodating religious practices is also required under federal law.  Thus, in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, the court ruled that a retail clothing store could not refuse to hire a Muslim woman because she wore a head scarf to her job interview. Abercrombie & Fitch argued to the Supreme Court ruled that a young lady who was denied a job offer because of a policy banning head coverings was asking for favored treatment.  However, she was entitled to wear the head scarf under federal law.  Therefore, the decision not to hire her was a legal violation that entitled her to damages.

Undue hardship surely does not mean that an employer is excused from accommodating an employee making a request for religious accommodation because doing so would conflict with the religious beliefs of the employer.

Protections against discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation by businesses against patrons find further support in the law in California Under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  Businesses in California are prohibited from discriminating against the public (customers and potential customers) on the basis of race, color, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. The Unruh Civil Rights Act is a piece of legislation that specifically outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.[1][2][3] The Unruh Act applies to all businesses such as hotels and motels, restaurants, theaters, hospitals, barber and beauty shops, housing accommodations, and retail establishments.[4]

While we enjoy considerable protections in California, those residing out of state are not so fortunate.  The conservative backlash against the protection, under the Constitution, of the right to marry regardless of sex has been intense.  Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, warned of ”potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty.” Two states have passed laws allowing county clerks the right to refrain from issuing marriage licenses on the grounds that gay marriage is against their religious beliefs  Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, recently proclaimed: ”No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”