In September 2011, the Mayor of New York City signed into law a bill initiated by the Sikh Coalition known as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA). The new law strengthens protections for Sikhs and other religious observers who are vulnerable to workplace discrimination because of their faith.

Federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Although this legal formula sounds good in theory, it has been watered down by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Specifically, the phrase “undue hardship” has been defined under federal law to mean anything more than a “de minimus expense.” Thus, according to some interpretations of Title VII, employers can reject a request for a reasonable religious accommodation without even proving objectively that the accommodation would cost them money.

In the absence of the strongest possible federal law against workplace religious discrimination, the Sikh Coalition made a strategic decision to strengthen laws of this kind at the state and municipal levels. Our first victory in this context was achieved in New York City.

New York City’s WRFA law clarified the legal standard by which judges must review claims of workplace discrimination based on religion. Specifically, New York City now allows employers to deny requests for reasonable religious accommodations only if they prove objectively that such accommodations would constitute a “significant difficulty or expense.” Because workplace accommodations for Sikh religious practices typically cost nothing, Sikhs who work in New York City enjoy some of the nation’s strongest legal protections against employment discrimination.

Why It Matters
Sikhs experience high levels of employment discrimination because of their religion. According to a 2008 report based on surveys of New York City Sikhs, close to 10 percent of survey respondents said they had experienced workplace discrimination because of their religion. Indeed, two New York institutions – the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) – have gained notoriety for discriminating against Sikh employees in the post-9/11 environment. After the passage of the New York City WRFA, people who work in New York City have a meaningful legal remedy in case they experience religious discrimination, and employers like the MTA and NYPD can no longer discriminate with impunity.