Sep. 13, 2012 Silver Spring, Maryland, United States…Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

Seventh-day Adventist religious liberty advocates say a new bill banning workplace religious discrimination in the U.S. state of California offers more protection for church members whose jobs are jeopardized by Sabbath observance.

The bill, signed into law last week by California Governor Jerry Brown, clarifies an employer’s responsibility to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of employees under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Religious dress and grooming – such as turbans, hijabs and beards – now fall under protections granted by the legislation.

California Governor Jerry Brown signs AB 1964 outside the state capital on September 8. The bill, supported by an interfaith coalition including the Sikh community and Sabbath-keepers, requires companies to accommodate the beliefs and practices of religious employees. Photo courtesy Office of Assemblymember Mariko Yamada/ANN

The bill, called AB 1964, also prevents employers from keeping visibly religious employees in back offices or basements.

“No longer will it be legal to segregate a worker from public view because their appearance did not fit a corporate image,” California Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) said in a press release from the 8th District she represents.

Yamada said her bill responds to changing demographics in California. Growing Sikh and Muslim communities in the state and nationwide have contributed to a recent uptick in workplace discrimination cases, the press release said. Last year alone, California employers faced more than 500 such cases.

For Adventist supporters, the bill also extends rights to employees whose religious expression, while perhaps less tangible, is no less intrinsic.

The bill sends a “clear signal” to companies regarding their obligations to religious employees, said Alan J. Reinach, director of the Church State Council, a religious liberty ministry of the Adventist Church’s Pacific Union Conference, based in Westlake Village, California.

“Hopefully, fewer Californians will lose their jobs, and Seventh-day Adventists will be more secure in their right to keep holy the Sabbath day,” Reinach said.

Passage of AB 1964, an homage to the federal Civil Rights Act, makes California the third state in the union to legislate so-called workplace religious freedom. Previously, New York and Oregon passed laws granting similar provisions.

Adventist religious liberty advocates have worked for years with an interfaith coalition to secure a workplace religious freedom act at the national level, but waning Congressional interest and disagreement over the scope of such legislation has tempered enthusiasm.

Dwayne Leslie, director of Legislative Affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist world church, says the California bill signals a grassroots approach to finding traction for workplace religious liberty protections.

“This is a big step forward for all people of faith,” Leslie said.

“I commend them for pushing for this to get it done in California, and I’m hopeful that this will happen in other states,” he added.

AB 1964 goes into effect on January 1, 2013.

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