Recent amendments to California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) provide clarity regarding an employer’s duty to provide religious accommodations to its employees. FEHA protects employees from discrimination and harassment based on religion, and requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ requests for religious accommodation unless such accommodation would cause “undue hardship” to the employer.
Under the 2013 amendments, to prove undue hardship, an employer must demonstrate “significant difficulty or expense” associated with the religious accommodation. This definition requires an employer to make every practical effort to provide religious accommodations to its employees, including considering alternative accommodations rather than simply denying an employee’s request for accommodation.
FEHA also protects employees’ “religious observances.” The new amendments clarify that religious clothing, dress, and grooming practices fall under the category of religious observances. Therefore, if a dress or grooming practice is an essential component to an employee’s religious practice, then an employer must accommodate the practice unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. Practically speaking, this means that employees may be entitled to religious accommodations from their employers’ official dress code policies.
Finally, the new amendments prohibit California employers from segregating employees from customers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. Thus, employers will now have to suggest alternative reasonable accommodations which do not include relocating employees to a back office or away from public view.