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Measure would protect workplace religious freedom

Posted: May 30, 2012 7:30 a.m.
Updated: May 30, 2012 7:30 a.m.
 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The state Assembly approved a bill Tuesday that would add more protections for religious freedom in the workplace, specifying that California discrimination laws also should apply to religious clothing, hairstyles and the right to carry religious objects.

The bill's author, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, said she was upset to learn that Sikh and Muslim workers continue to face discrimination at work despite laws prohibiting it.

AB1964, which passed on a 59-3 vote, also clarifies that segregating an employee from other workers or the public because of their appearance is not an acceptable accommodation under the law.

"This bill is a little bit like the Rosa Parks issue of the 21st century for me," Yamada said. "To know that there are Sikhs and Muslims relegated to the back of the store in order to continue their employment is particularly heinous."

Some lawmakers noted that the law could save the state from costly legal cases, such as a lawsuit the Department of Corrections settled last year with a Sikh man who was barred from becoming a prison guard because he refused to shave the beard required by his Sikh religion so he could be fitted for a gas mask. The state agreed to pay the man $295,000 in damages and give him a managerial job.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said she was concerned the changes could endanger employees and their co-workers, such as if oilfield workers were unable to don respirators in the event of a sour gas leak.

Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, an attorney, said he has represented an employee who was terminated for wearing a head scarf.

"The federal law doesn't go far enough to accommodate the issues that are important in the modern workforce," said Wagner, who supported the bill.

The legislation now moves to the state Senate.

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