Q. We would like to enforce a strict dress and grooming code in our company. Are we required to exempt from our policy employees whose faiths call for them to dress or groom in a specific way?
A. You might be. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1964, the Religious Freedom Act of 2012, which amends Section 12926 of the California Government Code. The new law, which will take effect Jan. 1, expands the definition of “religious creed” to include religious dress and grooming practices as part of an individual’s religious observance or belief.
“Religious dress practice” will be construed broadly to include “wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face covering, jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed.” Religious grooming practice includes all forms of head, facial, and body hair mandated by a religious creed.
Employers have been required to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs or observances unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.
Under AB 1964, for an employer to show it is unable to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance without undue hardship, it must demonstrate that it has explored any available reasonable means of accommodating the religious belief or observance, such as excusing the person from the duties that conflict with his or her religious belief or permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another person. Requiring the individual to be segregated from the public or other employees would not be considered reasonable.
In light of the new heightened standards, carefully consider each request for religious accommodation.