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New York City Council Passes Workplace Religious Freedom Bill

August 19, 2011 | By

New York (August 18, 2011): The New York City Council yesterday enacted a law – initiated by the Sikh Coalition – that will significantly enhance religion-based protections for employees working in New York City. Council Member Mark Weprin (D-Queens) is the law’s primary sponsor.

“It’s critical that our local laws recognize our city’s religious diversity and work to protect it,” said Amardeep Singh, Program Director and Co-Founder of the Sikh Coalition. “Today’s new law is an important step in eliminating the false choice between one’s employment and one’s faith. We thank Council Member Weprin for his leadership on this issue.”

Sikhs suffer high levels of employment discrimination because of their Sikh identity. According to a research report issued by the Coalition in 2008, one in ten Sikhs in New York City reported suffering discrimination in employment. At present, Sikhs may not work for the New York City Police Department unless their turbans are hidden. Similarly, Sikhs working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) are forced to brand their religious headwear with an MTA logo.

“This bill sends the message that people should not have to choose between serving our city and adhering to their religious beliefs. All Americans should receive the full embrace of our country’s constitutional freedoms,” said Council Member Mark S. Weprin.

A Welcome Change in Law
The law, called the “Workplace Religious Freedom Act” by supporters, changes the legal standard by which courts review claims of religious workplace discrimination by public and private city employees.

Under current city law, employers are required to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for the religious practices of their employees. However, employers can bypass this requirement by showing that such accommodations would impose minimal difficulty or expense for the employer’s business. This law will still allow employers to deny religious accommodations, but only by proving that such accommodations would constitute a “significant difficulty or expense.”

A National Movement
The proposed change in city law tracks a national movement to guard against religious discrimination in the workplace. Every year Senator John Kerry (D-MA) introduces a federal “Workplace Religious Freedom Act.”

While efforts to change the standard at the federal level have not yet seen success, both state and local municipalities are moving to adopt a more faith-friendly workplace accommodation standard.

“We congratulate the City Council, Council Member Weprin and Speaker Christine Quinn for their leadership today,” said Singh. “It’s critical that employees be evaluated solely on their ability to do their job and nothing else. Today’s law ensures that will be the case. We’re thrilled that our City is demonstrating national leadership on the issue of workplace religious discrimination. We urge our federal government to also move in this direction.”

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