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Sikh Coalition Testifies at Historic Hearing on Workplace Religious Freedom

July 2, 2011 | By

New York (July 1, 2010): The Sikh Coalition testified yesterday in support of a proposed law that would significantly enhance religion-based protections for New York City employees. The proposed law, introduced by Council Member Mark Weprin (D-Queens), would significantly increase the obligations of city employers to respect the right of Sikhs to maintain their articles of faith in the workplace without discrimination.

“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 proposed law, if enacted, would be 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 Sikh Coalition in 2008, one in ten Sikhs in New York City reported suffering discrimination in employment. Most egregiously, 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.

“Employees, whether Sikh or of any other religious group, should be judged based on their intelligence and qualifications, and not based on what religion they practice or what is convenient for someone else,” said Council Member Weprin.

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 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 a minimal difficulty or expense on the employer’s business. If enacted, this bill would still allow employers to deny religious accommodations, but only by proving that such accommodations would constitute a “significant difficulty or expense.”

Gap in The Bill
While the Sikh Coalition testified yesterday in support of the bill, it pointedly noted that the bill before the City Council does not address what it styled as “workplace segregation” of religious employees. Under current interpretations of federal law by some courts, an employer can segregate employees of faith out of public view if their articles of faith violate workplace uniform rules.

“In addition to enhancing the religious accommodation standard in city law, which we commend, we also ask the Council to take up the issue of workplace religious segregation,” said Singh. “This is an opportunity to demonstrate national leadership on an emerging issue and be true to our values as New Yorkers.”

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