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As an employee of faith, it can be difficult to navigate your religious rights at work. This is especially true if a religious holiday or observance isn’t heavily commercialized or mainstream like Hanukkah or Christmas. While employers are legally obligated to at least try to offer religious accommodation, you may still be hesitant to ask your boss for time off for religious reasons. But you don’t have to be fearful. Both federal and California employment laws protect workers from discrimination due to religion. And if you work in California, state law actually offers much stronger employee protections than federal law.

Understanding California Religious Accommodation Laws and Holidays

How the FEHA Defines Religion

Before you ask your employer for time off work due to a religious observance this holiday season, it’s important to understand how California law defines religion. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) states that “religious belief” includes observance of a Sabbath or other holy days and reasonable time necessary for travel prior and subsequent to a religious observance. FEHA also defines a “religious creed” as beliefs, observations, or practices which a person sincerely holds and occupies in their life a place of importance parallel to that of traditionally organized religions. According to the California statute, the law requires an 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.”

The California Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012

The California Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012 (WRFA) extends the definition of religion to include every aspect of religious belief, creed, observance and practice by also adding religious dress and grooming practices, including clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, artifacts or other items that relate to a religious observance. This also includes body, head and facial hair that you must keep due to your religion.

Reasonable Accommodation for Religion Under California Law

If you are an employee in California, state law requires your employer to make exceptions when it comes to workplace appearance standards due to religious practices. Perhaps you must wear a head scarf, a beard or other types of religion-based attire. While some of the most common religious discrimination claims involve employers who fail to provide religious accommodations to employees, this is unlawful. Under California law, employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” so long as the accommodation does not cause “undue hardship.” The “undue hardship” standard is different from federal to state law. Federal laws excuse employers from providing religious accommodations if the business would suffer “minimal hardship” in doing so. But to be excused in California, an employer must prove that the religious accommodation in question causes a “significant difficulty or expense” to the business.

Reasonable accommodation in California also includes job modifications that enable religious employees to exercise their beliefs. This can include scheduling changes for religious observances or holidays or allowing workers to pray at work during a break, in a private area or at regular intervals throughout the day.

Additionally, California AB 987 which was passed in 2015, makes it clear that employers cannot retaliate against employees for requesting reasonable accommodations due to religious reasons.

Does my employer have to give me time off for religious holidays in California?

As previously stated, your employer has to provide a reasonable accommodation if you are unable to work on a certain day due to a religious holiday or observance. Of course, all reasonable accommodations – including time off for a religious holiday – are determined on a case-by-case basis. While your employer needs to provide you religious accommodations under California law, certain industries require all employees to work on a variety of nationally-recognized holidays and these days should be spelled out in your employee handbook. The best way to make things easier on you and your employer is to talk about their expectations and yours well before your religious holiday occurs so you can make proper scheduling arrangements. If your employer fails to accommodate you and the religious accommodation would not cause undue hardship, you could be a victim of religious discrimination. If you think this is the case, you should seek counsel from an experienced California employment attorney.

Religious Accommodation in the California Workplace: Additional Information

  • AB 1964: California Workplace Religious Freedom Act – Full Bill Text
  • California Law Prohibits Workplace Discrimination and Harassment – PDF via DFEH
  • California Employment Law AB 987: What Employees Need to Know
  • Religious Discrimination: EEOC Releases New Guidelines

California religious accommodation laws are in place to ensure that all workers of all faiths have equal employment opportunities. No one should be subjected to religious discrimination at work. If you need legal assistance, contact our passionate California employment attorneys at Hennig Ruiz today. Get a free consultation.