Religious Discrimination in the Happiest Place on Earth
September 17, 2013
Both federal and state laws protect Californians from discrimination on the basis of religion. First, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Further, the California Governor recently signed into law the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act. This new law, effective since January 1, 2013, expands protections by making clear that “religious dress practice” is a protected activity. “Religious dress practice” includes wearing religious clothing, jewelry, head or face coverings, artifacts, or other religious items. The law specifically protects religious grooming practices, such as the growing of head or facial hair. Common religious grooming practices include wearing a hijab, yarmulke, or other head covering, refusing to wear pants or skirts that do not cover the knees, and wearing a beard, long hair, or dreadlocks.
The Act requires employers to reasonably accommodate dress or other requests of employees based on sincere religious beliefs, unless such accommodation would cause the employer undue hardship. An undue hardship is considered to be a significant expense or difficulty in accommodating the employee’s request. Furthermore, the law prohibits employers from segregating an employee from other employees or eliminating an employee’s contact with the public as a means of reasonable accommodation.
Recent Disney Case
Imane Boudlal worked as a hostess at Walt Disney’s Adventure Storyteller’s Café for two and a half years. While studying for her United States citizenship exam, she realized that she should be lawfully allowed to wear her hijab, or headscarf, to work in accordance with her Muslim religious beliefs. She began wearing the headscarf to work, and was subsequently asked to remove it several times. Her managers gave her the option of removing the hijab, working in a different position backstage to avoid contact with the public, or wearing a large bonnet and hat combination in an attempt to hide her hijab. When Boudlal refused all of these options, her managers sent her home without pay several times, suspended her, and ultimately terminated her employment with the Disney restaurant. Boudlal then filed suit against Disney for unlawful discrimination.
Disney tried to defend its actions by claiming that wearing a hijab did not fit in with the Disney image, and allowing Boudlal to wear her religious dress would cause undue hardship to the company. However, concerns regarding the company’s image do not, on its own, constitute undue hardship under the law. No evidence was presented that showed Disney would suffer hardship or lose business if an employee wore a hijab. Furthermore, Boudlal was not in costume as a Disney character, but simply wore a white uniform that matched her hijab, so the headscarf would not affect the image of any particular Disney character. Finally, as previously mentioned, hiding Boudlal from the public does not qualify as reasonable accommodation under California laws, and therefore is not an adequate solution to the situation.
If you have suffered discrimination in the workplace due to your religious beliefs, or if your employer has denied you reasonable accommodation for religious dress or grooming practices, it is important for you to contact a California employment attorney at Pershing Square Law Firm as soon as possible.