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USA NYC Sikhs Give Boost For Federal Workplace Religious Freedom Law


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
A new bill, initiated by Sikh activists and enacted by the New York City council, to protect workers against religious discrimination, adds momentum for such legislation at the federal level, a U.S. senator said.

"Like a lot of issues, pressure sometimes has to come from outside Washington to get Congress to move,” John Kerry, D-Mass., told SikhNN by email. The senator has been proposing the federal Workplace Religious Freedom Act every year since 1996.

In a similarly worded bill, the city council proposed stricter legal standards for local courts to review religious discrimination claims by the city’s public and private employees. The council unanimously passed the bill on August 17. It now goes to the mayor for final approval before becoming city law.

“It has come up on a number of occasions, many employees have complained that the city of New York is not allowing people to follow their full religious beliefs,” said Councilman Mark Weprin, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s a terrible injustice to have to choose between taking a job and following the religion.”

The councilman represents a large Sikh population in District 23, Oakland Gardens.

Under the current city law, which is similar to the current federal law, employers only need to show that a religious accommodation would impose minimal difficulty or expense in order to deny the accommodation, said Amardeep Singh, programs director of the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group.

Two of the coalition’s most important cases involving Sikhs applying for city jobs, one for the New York City Police Department, in 2003, and another for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, in 2005, led to the group’s effort to lobby the council to tighten the employment discrimination law.

The police department does not accept officers in turbans and beards. And the transit authority requires Sikhs to don its emblem on their turbans.

“Both cases made us realize the importance involving city employers - they set the tone for private employers,” Amardeep Singh said. The parameters being judged and decided upon were very employer friendly. “The case(s) forced us to think about (the wording of the current law). We latched on the language of the federal bill.”

Under the proposed law, employers will have a greater burden to show that the religious accommodation would impose “significant difficulty or expense,” something far greater than an inconvenience.

“The bill will not force the NYPD to do anything differently,” Weprin said. “But in the future they will have to prove hardship… It’s more likely that the (religious) accommodation will be given.

“Our police used to be all white people,” he added. “In hindsight, we know how silly that sounds… It helps to have the police department look like the community it serves.”

The stricter standard is also applied by New Jersey, and New York has been applying it for about seven years. But efforts to change the standard at the federal level have not been successful.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been one of the biggest opponents of the federal bill because it imposes a greater burden on businesses, Amardeep Singh said. But the states’ laws have shown no discernible affect on the economies of New York or New Jersey.

“I don’t believe that a change in the federal law would slow down the engines of growth,” he added.

“I want to make WRFA the law of the land so that each city and state doesn’t have to act on its own," Kerry said. “The decision from the New York City council highlights what still happens in the American workplace, and that there are at least local leaders standing up to do something about it.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to sign the bill on Tuesday, August 30.



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