New York State Prohibits Employment Discrimination Based on Religious Attire, Clothing and Facial Hair

Effective October 8, 2019, New York State’s Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) will prohibit employers in New York State from refusing to hire, retain, promote an individual, or taking other discriminatory action against an individual for wearing attire or facial hair in accordance with the tenets of their religion. The HRL already prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants or employees based on that individual’s religious beliefs, and requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices.  This amendment to the HRL was enacted August 9, 2019.

What’s New?  Federal law, New York State law, and New York City law have long prohibited discrimination based on religion and have required employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices or beliefs.  So why was there a need for such a law?  The law is intended to clarify that wearing religious attire, clothing or facial hair in connection with one’s religion is protected under NYSHRL.  Under the NYSHRL, it is unlawful to require an employee to violate or forego wearing attire, clothing or facial hair in accordance with their religion’s requirements unless, after making a bona fide effort to reasonably accommodate an employee, the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the person’s religious practices without an undue hardship on the business.  According to New York State Assembly Bill A04204 (same as Senate Bill S 04037), the reason for this amendment to the NYSHRL was because a Sikh employee of the MTA was ordered to remove his turban and wear the MTA hat and when he objected to doing so on religious grounds, the MTA directed him to affix an MTA badge to the front of his turban.  However, that was unacceptable because wearing a turban is a solemn religious duty for Sikhs and affixing a badge to it would not be religiously proper.

Employers should review (and if necessary, update) their grooming and appearance policies and practices and reasonable accommodation policy, and train managers on the law’s new requirements.  If you have any questions, please contact Lisa Brauner, Esq., Head of Perlman & Perlman LLP’s Employment Law Department, or 212-889-0575.

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