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Are California's Laws Prohibiting Workplace Religious Discrimination Enough?

Despite a 2012 California law prohibiting religious discrimination in the workplace, many Muslims described instances of a hostile work environment because of their faith. This photo appears in CAIR's report. | Photo: CAIR
Despite a 2012 California law prohibiting religious discrimination in the workplace, many Muslims described instances of a hostile work environment because of their faith. This photo appears in CAIR's report. | Photo: CAIR

A young Muslim woman applies for a position at a beauty supply store without wearing her hijab. Once she's hired, she starts her first day of work with the headscarf covering her hair.

"Take the hijab off or go home," the woman's supervisor says, in front customers and coworkers.

After explaining her religious beliefs and the significance of hijab to her manager -- an expression of devotion to God and symbol of modesty and privacy expressed through religious dress that is not unique to Islam -- she is still sent home. While she is allowed to keep her job and continue wearing her hijab, the young woman sees a cut in work hours, and is assigned to work in the back of the shop.

This is just one of the examples of workplace discrimination Muslims face, as listed in the Council on American-Islamic Relations' newest report on Muslim civil rights in California. CAIR's California offices received 933 complaints from the American Muslim community last year. The organization's Los Angeles branch received 444 complaints, the highest of all CAIR California offices.

Despite a 2012 California law prohibiting religious discrimination in the workplace, many Muslims described instances of a hostile work environment, alleging harassment about terrorism, politics or religion, retaliation and wrongful termination, and failure to accommodate religious practices, such as wearing hijab, growing facial hair or taking prayer breaks during the day. Employment discrimination composed the highest number of complaints in the report, at 15 percent.

Under the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act, an employer must reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs and observances of an employee, unless doing so would cause "undue hardship." The threshold for undue hardship in California is higher than federal requirements requiring employers to show "de minimis" or moderate hardship.

The state's law also diverges from federal law by expanding the meaning of "religious observance" and "religious belief" and specifically extending protections for religious dress and grooming practices.

Fatima Dadabhoy, a civil rights attorney with CAIR's L.A. chapter, believes California's law is a step in the right direction, but wonders whether it is enough to prevent future cases of discrimination.

"California has strengthened its employee rights laws," Dadabhoy says. "But that's not a federal fix, and you can't just put people in the back room."

And while these legal protections exist, part of the problem of ensuring corporations and organizations comply with the law lies in lack of awareness of obligations and the extent of rights of employees, says Brie Loskota, managing director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC. Some see requests for legally protected religious accommodations as requests for "special rights," she adds.

"The problem for minority religious groups is that the default way we understand religion in the United States is through a Protestant Christian lens," Loskota says. "Muslims need to ask for time off to fulfill their religious duty of congregational prayer on Friday afternoons, a regular workday in the United States. Christians seeking to fulfill their same religious duty generally do not have to ask for accommodation because Sunday is not a regular work day."

"In this way, the unseen defaults in our culture can easily be misread and the privileges they confer are overlooked."

Last year's complaints are up slightly from 2012, but it is not clear whether that is because of increased instances of discrimination, or because CAIR ramped up its outreach efforts and increased its staff.

But it's not just botched employment policies that have left California's Muslims uneasy -- CAIR received more than 100 complaints related to FBI and law enforcement discrimination as well.

"[CAIR] frequently receives complaints from American Muslims approached for voluntary interviews allegedly related to counterterrorism. These interviews are undertaken liberally, often with no indication of wrongdoing according to the interviewing agents themselves," the organization notes in its report, released late-August.

"There are broad implications of widespread questioning," Dadabhoy says. "Why does the FBI target a whole community?"

Companies need to be held accountable for violating laws when their policies disregard them, Loskota adds. Even more important, she argues, is for companies to see it as in their interest to create environments for their employees that respect their human and civil rights.

"Doing so is simply good business," she says.