(New York, New York) September 2, 2011 – New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a bill -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.
Present at the signing were representatives of the Gurdwara Sant Sagar and the Sikh Coalition. It was only through the joint efforts of the Gurdwara Sant Sagar, the Sikh Coalition and Council Member Weprin was this historic bill passed. In the passage of this bill, Council Member Weprin fulfilled a promise made during the last New York City Council Election to Baba Ji Sajjan Singh and the Board of Trustees of the Gurdwara Sant Sagar.
“This new law will squarely focus an employer’s eye on whether an employee can perform their job and nothing else,” said Amardeep Singh, Program Director and Co-founder of the Sikh Coalition. “Today’s law is a major step forward in ensuring Sikhs and other religious minorities are not unfairly excluded from jobs for which they are otherwise qualified. We thank Mayor Bloomberg for signing it into law.”
A Welcome Change in Law
The bill, called the “Workplace Religious Freedom Act” by supporters, would change the legal standard by which courts review claims of religious workplace discrimination by public and private city employees.
Under previous 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 a minimal difficulty or expense on the employer’s business. The new law, signed by Mayor Bloomberg, 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 enhance federal employment discrimination laws. 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 Mayor Bloomberg, the City Council, Council Member Weprin, and Speaker Christine Quinn for their leadership today,” said Sapreet Kaur, Executive Director of the Sikh Coalition. “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.”
Sikhs Endure Discrimination in New York City
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. This is unusually high compared to the general population.
Most egregiously, in New York City, Sikhs may not work for the New York City Police Department unless they remove their turbans. This policy exists despite the fact that turbaned Sikh soldiers currently serve in the United States Army in Afghanistan.
Similarly, Sikh and Muslim workers who currently work for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) are forced to brand their religious headwear with an MTA logo. The MTA began imposing this job requirement on Sikh and Muslim workers only soon after 9/11.
While the new law signed by Mayor Bloomberg does not force either the MTA or NYPD to accept Sikhs with their full articles of faith, it creates a legal framework within city law that makes it very difficult to continue to exclude them from city jobs.
“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.