Muslim Woman wearing a hijab
Photo Credit Amelia Johnson

In August 2010, Noor Abdallah, a Muslim woman who worked as a hostess at Disneyland's Grand Californian hotel complained that Disney had refused to allow her to wear her hijab, or headscarf, which she wore as a sign of modesty in front of her customers. Disney, which had been working to accommodate her, found a blue scarf that would both fit with the uniform look and accommodate her religious beliefs. The issue was resolved.

Unfortunately, many other religious employees have not been this fortunate and the incidents of religious discrimination based on dress have continued to increase as they have been forced to choose between their faith and their job.

On April 16, 2012 the California Assembly Labor and Employment Committee passed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012. Introduced on April 11 by Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), the bill, designated AB 1964 after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is designed to decrease incidents of employment discrimination against employees who must wear religious dress as part of their religious commitment and adds it to other areas of protected "religious belief or observance."

Particularly, this bill will address the concerns of Muslims and Sikhs who have been discriminated against in the workplace because of religious dress requirements, or "accommodated" in back rooms away from customers and the general public.

The code presently reads, "Religious belief or observance, as used in this section, includes, but is not limited to, observance of a Sabbath of other religious holy days or days, and reasonable time necessary for travel prior and subsequent to a religious observance."

AB 1964 would add: "and the practice of wearing religious clothing or a religious hairstyle."

In order to defend against these claims, which can arise based on adverse employment action, refusal to provide reasonable accommodation, or failure to hire, employers will need to be able to demonstrate an "undue hardship" as defined in California law. Under the bill, an accommodation will not be considered reasonable if it requires an employee to be segregated from customers or the general public.

AB 1964 is scheduled to be heard next in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on April 24.  The bill is being supported by a variety of faith groups including Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, and Sikhs. The bill also clarifies the employers' requirement to provide reasonable accommodation by removing some of the ambiguities presently in the law.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of testifying before the Oregon Judiciary Committee alongside the Northwest Religious Liberty Association in favor of the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act which addressed the areas of religious dress and holy day observance. That bill was signed into law and as a result peaceful people of faith in Oregon have experienced greater workplace protections and employers have benefited from the clearer guidelines.

Click here for the latest Status on AB 1964:


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