By Amy Messigian

On September 8, 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act into law.  The law, which becomes effective on January 1, 2013, amends the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (the “Act”) to include a religious dress practice or a religious grooming practice as a belief or observance covered under the Act’s protections against religious discrimination.

The new law also specifies that it is not reasonable to segregate an employee from the public or other employees as an accommodation of the individual’s religious dress practice or religious grooming practice.  Inasmuch, retail employers may not limit such employees to the back of the store due to their religious attire or grooming practice.

As with any new law, sure to come is a bevy of litigation testing the area of grey between the black and the white.  A new case involving The Walt Disney Company (“Disney”) may lead the way.  In August 2012, Imane Boudlal, a former employee of the Storytellers Café at the Grand California Hotel & Spa, located at the Disney Resort in Anaheim, California, filed a lawsuit against Disney alleging religious discrimination and harassment.

Boudlal, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Moroccan origin who is Muslim, began working for Disney in 2008.  Two years later, she decided to permanently wear a hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women.  She alleges that she asked her supervisors at Disney for permission to wear the hijab at work, but was informed that it violated the Disney “look.”  Boudlal further alleges that Disney did not enforce its “look” policy on an equal basis, and that other employees were allowed to visibly display tattoos, religious insignia or ostentatious hair and nails.  Boudlal also alleges that she offered to wear a hijab in colors matching her uniform, but that Disney rejected her offer and instead suggested that she be transferred to a position at the back of the restaurant or wear a hat on top of her hijab.

Although Disney has not had an opportunity to make its case at this early stage of the litigation, it issued a statement decrying the allegations in Boudlal’s complaint.  Particularly, the statement indicates that Boudlal was provided with multiple options to accommodate her beliefs, as well as several options to allow her to continue wearing her own hijab, all of which were rejected.  The statement also indicates that Boudlal has since refused to return to work.

Supposing that Disney allowed Boudlal to wear her hijab, but also requested that she cover it with a hat, it is unclear whether such actions would violate the Act.  Also unclear is whether the Act permits an employer to provide a headdress that matches its uniform.

What is clear is that employers should proceed with caution when addressing religious accommodation issues and avoid excluding the employee from customer interaction simply due to the employee’s religious dress or grooming practices.  Before any accommodation is provided or denied, legal counsel should be sought to ensure that the decision does not run afoul of the Act.