A great deal has been written within Sikh circles about the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), a bill making its way through the United States Congress. At different times, Sikhs have been asked to support WRFA because it would “ensure that Sikhs can practice their religion freely” or because “no employee should… be forced to choose between… his or her faith and keeping a job.”
What do these grand promises mean? How would WRFA really affect the Sikh community? What are the gaps in the law that WFRA would close? We hope the following may provide some insight about WFRA and its importance for the Sikh community.
The Law As it Stands Now – “De Minimis Cost”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 puts forth federal employment discrimination law standards. The Act states that unless a religious practice would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of an employer’s business,” an employer must allow an employee to practice his or her religion in the workplace.
All this raises the question: what is an “undue hardship”? In 1977, the United States Supreme Court interpreted “undue hardship” to mean any accommodation that would impose more than a “de minimis cost” on the employer. In other words, if an accommodation would create any additional cost or difficulty for the employer, the employee is out of luck. As a result, many employers make little or no effort to accommodate religious employees.
The Law if WRFA is Passed
WFRA would make two important changes or additions to the law. WRFRA would:
- Eliminate the De Minimis Cost Standard - WRFA would require employers to accommodate unless doing so would involve “significant difficulty or expense.” The “de minimis” cost standard would be eliminated. This would significantly increase an employer’s responsibility to respond to a request for religious accommodation.
- Recognize Religious Clothing – WFRA makes specific mention of religious clothing. It states that religious clothing should not be barred in the workplace, when wearing such clothing only has a “tangential impact on the ability to perform job functions.”
Note, however, that the language in this section is not perfectly clear. The courts will likely have to interpret its meaning if WFRA becomes law.
WRFA’s Potential Impact on the Sikh Community
WRFA would greatly increase the likelihood that Sikhs would be able to wear their articles of faith in the workplace. For example, if a Sikh wants to wear her dastaar to work, under current federal law, her employer can reject her request if the employer can show that wearing a dastaar will impose any additional cost or difficulty. Under RFRA, her request to wear a dastaar can be rejected only if it would create a “significant difficulty or expense.” In short, employers would have to make genuine efforts accommodate a Sikh’s desire to wear his or her articles of faith in the workplace.
How You Can Make a Difference
Ask your representatives in Congress to cosponsor RFRA!
Go to the North American Religious Liberty Association website --- http://religiousliberty.info/ --- and type in your zip code. You can send a pre-formatted message to your representatives or your own message. Ask them to support RFRA! It will only take a few minutes.
The Coalition’s Work on RFRA
The Sikh Coalition strongly supports RFRA. Where possible we have raised our support for RFRA with members of Congress. For example, last month, the Coalition expressed its support for RFRA during a Senate Democratic Leadership meeting during which Senator Hillary Clinton was present. The Coalition applauds other Sikh and non-Sikh organizations that have also been supporting the passage of this legislation.
The Coalition also supports efforts to enact local versions of RFRA in state legislatures.
As always, the Coalition is a resource if you or someone you know has experienced employment discrimination. Contact email@example.com if you or someone you know requires assistance.