Davis Lawmaker Seeks to Clarify Discrimination in Workplace Law

Assemblymember Mariko Yamada announced the introduction of a bill that clarifies the religious rights of workers Wednesday. 

The democrat from Davis held a news conference at a Sikh temple in West Sacramento, saying that confusion over the 1964 Civil Rights Act has caused employers to treat Sikhs and Muslims who wear religious head dress and beards differently.

Yamada says workers are often segregated by companies with strict dress codes because workers are often not allowed to deal with customers.  Instead, they are assigned office or storeroom duties as an accommodation for religious beliefs.  Yamada likens it to a modern day Rosa Parks-type of discrimination.

"Sikhs and Muslims in particular shouldn't have to go to the back of the store in order to continue their employment or to support their families," said Yamada.

The legislation has support by Muslim and Sikh groups who have been singled out for hate crimes, especially after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

"I think very little is known about Sihks. Ignorance is a breeding ground for discrimination," said Rajdeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition.

Wearing a maroon turban and a full beard, Singh said Sikhs settled in California a century ago yet there is not a single Sikh law enforcement officer in California.  He said they are on police forces in Great Britain and Canada where they are allowed to wear turbans. He said wearing a turban demonstrates a commitment to freedom and equality for all people, religious tenants that were formed five centuries ago.

"When you see a turban your assumption should be that this person might be one of the most American of Americans," said Singh.

Sacramento Council of American Islamic Relations Executive Director Baim Elkarra said they've represented many employees who have been discriminated against for wearing religious head wear. He said the disputes are often resolved without going to court once employers are apprised of the law.

But the law can be interpreted differently, thus the need for Yamada's bill which among other things prevents companies from keeping workers from public duties because of religious clothing.

"There have been a series of court cases that have muddled the waters," said Yamada.

The bill may eventually run into opposition from those who believe there are already religious protections in the law.  But she says her proposal will initiate more discussions on the issue and will serve as a vehicle for updating civil rights laws.