Dear Supporter Ji,
I hope this letter finds you well! If we haven’t met, my name is Amrith Kaur and I am the Legal Director here at the Sikh Coalition. I am writing to let you know about a really interesting development that our legal team has been working on regarding articles of faith and workplace discrimination faced by Sikhs and other religious minorities. This, we hope, will go a long way towards equal access to employment for all Sikhs.
The Sikh Coalition legal team receives hundreds of intakes every year from community members who have been discriminated against--sometimes for years on end. In too many professions across both the private and public sectors, the Sikh articles of faith specifically have been viewed as problematic by employers, which often leads to religious accommodations being refused. Most recently, we’ve seen this as healthcare professionals struggle with hospital policies requiring them to shave their beards in order to wear certain types of personal protective equipment or risk termination. We’ve also seen it in cases where employers say having a visible Sikh in a customer-facing position detracts from their bottom line, so they either don’t hire them or put them in a position where customers can’t see them and their turban and beard, like our client at Walt Disney World. We’ve even seen it in the restaurant industry, where Sikhs are told they can’t wear a kara because jewelry is prohibited by the local health codes.
Essentially, Sikhs face discrimination and a lack of understanding about our articles of faith significantly more than most other religious groups. Unfortunately, employers too often get away with it because they have the law on their side. That’s why I am so excited to share with you a legal brief we have been working on to combat this problem!
Right now, if an employer does not want to grant an employee’s request for a religious accommodation, all they have to do is show that providing the accommodation burdens them with more than a “de minimis” cost. In practice, this ends up meaning “almost any” cost. This rule comes from a United States Supreme Court case called Trans World Airlines Inc. vs. Hardison, which interprets the requirements of providing religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Since the late 1970s, employers have been using this case to get out of giving religious accommodations for their staff.
Recently, though, a new case dealing with this legal standard has arisen, and is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Small vs. Memphis Light, Gas and Water, a Tennessee employee who is a Jehovah’s Witness asked his employer for religious accommodations so he could attend certain religious and community service obligations required by his faith. His employer said that changing their schedule would inflict more than a de minimis cost, so they weren’t obligated to to provide him with the time off. The lower courts agreed with the employer, and said they did not have to give this employee the requested time off, despite the fact that it was being requested as a religious accommodation under Title VII, due to the cost involved.
The Sikh Coalition has joined with a law firm, Horvitz & Levy, and Muslim Advocates, another civil rights organization, to file a legal document called an amicus brief in this case. As you probably know, the Sikh Coalition often collaborates with other groups when addressing major civil rights issues that affect a wide range of communities, as is the case here. Our brief focuses on the fact that the current standard not only erodes the protections that were intended for religious practices under the Civil Rights Act, but it also misinterprets the original meaning of de minimis cost or burden. We want the Supreme Court to recognize that the way the law is interpreted now significantly harms minority religious groups, like Sikhs, and allows employers to effectively discriminate against those groups under the protection of the law. This discrimination has plagued our community for far too long and must stop.
We’re very excited that our brief was also cited by the SCOTUSblog, which tracks important cases that are before the Supreme Court, to read as part of their “Petitions of the Week.” We, along with our partners, hope that the Supreme Court agrees to review this case so that we can finally make sure employers across the country are held accountable and are not discriminating against their employees due to their religious beliefs.
As always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly!
The Sikh Coalition
If you would like to be removed from our mailing list, please click here.