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Religious freedom in the workplace



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New York state Sen. James Sanders, pictured above, and Assemblyman David Weprin called on their colleagues in the Senate last week to pass a bill prohibiting workplace discrimination against religious attire, including facial hair. The bill has been stalled in the Senate despite overwhelming support in the Assembly, which passed the bill two years in row.  The bill establishes such discrimination as a human rights violation.  Photo by Richard Moody.
March 24, 2014
Two New York state lawmakers from Queens are seeking Senate passage of a bill (S.5828/A.864-A) prohibiting workplace discrimination against attire and facial hair worn for religious purposes, and condemns the behavior as a violation of human rights. 

Bill sponsors Sen. James Sanders and Assemblyman David Weprin, held a press conference last week outside the Senate chambers supporting passage in that house, where the bill has lingered despite overwhelming support in the Assembly. 

The Assembly bill, A.864-a, passed almost unanimously with one negative vote for two consecutive years — last year and earlier this year, making the bill one of the first to pass in that manner this legislative session, according to Weprin.  

The measure would amend the Civil Rights Law, the Executive Law, and the Labor Law to prohibit employers from forcing workers to take off their garb or remove facial hair that are part of their religious customs.

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The bill is co-sponsored by Assembly members William Scarborough, D-Queens; Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston; Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale; and Michelle Schimel, D-Great Neck. Senate cosponsors include Sens. Jose Peralta, D-Jackson Heights and Bill Perkins, D-Harlem.  

"The question is, can one have a job and wear religious garb or practice your religion? Any New Yorker, any American emphatically would say 'yes,' of course you can," Sanders said. "[They would say] that this is a country large enough to incorporate a little bit of everyone, that there is no way that we would be so backwards as to prevent people from practicing their religion and having a job." 

Weprin, who pushed the bill through the Assembly, said, "It's a very simple premise.The premise Sen. Sanders laid out is that no one should have to choose between their employment and their religion...today in 2014. It's outrageous that some people are excluded from certain jobs because of the way the look and the way they dress." 

 The one lawmaker who voted against the measure in the Assembly is Al Graf, a retired police officer. Graf, R-Holbrook, justifies his 'no' vote, citing "paramilitary" occupations that would strictly prohibit certain physical appearances that pose safety hazard. 

For example, as a police officer or firefighter, Graf said there are hardly any exceptions to the dress code. He said, for example, officers must wear clip on ties and not actual ties to prevent strangulation and women with long hair must have it tied up out on the field to prevent it being pulled.  

For that reason, Graf said the way the bill is written, and what the supporters say it means, are two different things and that employees should consider whether the position they want would conflict with their religious customs prior to accepting the job. 

He said an appurtenance such as certain clothing could be hazardous to a firefighter entering a burning building, and therefore, he is against passing a bill that could be harmful in the long run.  Although the bill has an exemption by which an employer may restrict religious attire if it's proven to interfere with the employee's job performance, Weprin said he believes that is rarely the case. 

"People should not have to make a choice between working to provide for their families [and] observing their religion. I'm very proud that we passed this bill in the Assembly and I urge that all New Yorkers will be able to freely wear religious garments in the workplace such as hijabs, turbans, kippahs and beards without fear of persecution," he said. 

Sanders said he is proud to stand for the religious rights of all New Yorkers.  

"A person should be able to work and practice their religion. This bill will ensure that workers are not discriminated at the workplace simply for following their faith," he said. 

Sanders said during the press conference he will personally request support for the bill from Independent Democratic Conference leader Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx.

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  1. print email
    March 26, 2014 | 02:35 PM

    I understand the religion of the individual. But if it is for safety hazzared in the workplace. She/ he is allowed to wear your wedding ring and one article of jewelry. Facial hairs on hands is an appropriate in the workplace. There are work places that will not require you to do such actions.

    natasha boisson
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