In most states, religious discrimination claims are routinely filed in Federal Court under Federal law. In a few states, California among them, these claims are routinely filed in state court, and lawyers bring the cases under state law, which provides much stronger protection for workers than Federal law. Here’s why.
The most common religious discrimination cases involve claims that the employer failed to accommodate a worker’s religion, such as a Sabbath observance, or wearing of a head scarf or a beard for religious reasons. These are known as religious accommodation cases.
So how is California law stronger? First, the California statute has some very strong language: it requires the employer to:
Explore any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating the religious belief or observance, including the possibilities of excusing the person from those duties that conflict with his or her religious belief or observance or permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another person
This is perhaps the clearest language in any statute, state or federal, as to what the employer must do to provide religious accommodation.
California law also uniquely requires companies to make exceptions to corporate appearance standards for religious practices. Religious diversity trumps conformity.
Both California and Federal law require employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” so long as the accommodation does not cause an “undue hardship.” But the Federal law excuses the employer from providing the accommodation if it suffers even a minimal hardship, whereas California law requires the employer to prove the accommodation would cause a “significant difficulty or expense.” As a practical matter, religious accommodations very rarely cause a significant difficulty or expense.
Finally, there is also a difference of interpretation as to what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation.” For example, suppose a Sabbath observer tells the boss that she cannot work on Saturday because of her religion. The boss may think it reasonable to give her two or three Saturdays a month as days off. But the worker still has a conflict because it is against her religion to work even one Saturday a month. Is this a reasonable accommodation? In some parts of the nation, Federal courts have interpreted “reasonable accommodation” in a way that the employer does not necessarily have to completely eliminate the conflict between the worker’s religion and job duties.
California recently adopted a regulation clarifying that a “reasonable accommodation” is one that completely eliminates the conflict between the job duty and the worker’s religion.
Thanks to a California law enacted in 2015, it is also now clear that an employer cannot retaliate against a worker for requesting religious accommodation.
The purpose of these laws is to insure equal employment opportunity for Americans of all faiths. No one should have to leave their religion at home when they go to work.
The Church State Council has been instrumental in passage of California laws to strengthen protection for workplace religious freedom, and is available to provide legal services to people of all faiths.