August 12, 2019
By Lía Fiol-Matta, Esq., Ty Hyderally, Esq.
In a new move towards ensuring equality in the workplace, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed into law what is known as the “Religious Garb Bill” (S4037) on August 9, 2019, clarifying that employers cannot “refuse to hire, attain, promote, or take other discriminatory action against an individual for wearing attire or facial hair in accordance with the tenets of their religion.” The new law will amend the current New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law, Art. 15, §296. This law currently prohibits an employer from “impos[ing] upon a person a condition of obtaining or retaining employment, including opportunities for promotion, advancement or transfers, any terms or condition that would require such person to violate or forego a sincerely held practice of his or her religion…”
The law, which had been pending for many years, was inspired by the case of Sathari Singh-Khalsa, (also known as Kevin Harrington), a Sikh subway operator for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), now retired, who was directed to remove his turban or cover it with an agency logo in 2004. Harrington sued the MTA over its discriminatory policy propelled by the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. In 2012, Sikh and Muslim transit workers settled the federal lawsuit challenging the MTA’s post 9/11 policy which segregated them out of public view if they refused to remove or alter their religious headdress. At the time, the MTA cited security concerns after the attacks to justify the policy even though Sikh and Muslim employees had worked successfully at the MTA for decades without the policy.
Assembly Member David Weprin first introduced the bill in 2011 and it passed the Assembly every year since 2013, but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, until now, with Democrats in power in both houses. At the time the bill was first presented, Weprin explained that the bill was inspired by Harrington’s story, as a man who “was a hero during 9/11, he actually drove the E train back and forth while the buildings were burning in the World Trade Center and actually rescued hundreds of individuals and brought them to safety while he was risking his life.”
Despite Harrington’s heroism, following 9/11, the MTA received hundreds of phone calls complaining about “a terrorist driving the E train”, according to Weprin. At the time Harrington’s lawsuit was settled, he stated: “The MTA honored me for driving my train in reverse away from the towers on 9/11 and leading passengers to safety. They called me a ‘hero of 9/11’. I didn’t have a corporate logo on my turban on 9/11. This policy made no sense. It was driven by fear.”
Gov. Cuomo praised the law as one that celebrates New York’s diversity, stating that “this law will protect people from discriminatory employment practices based on religious attire or facial hair and makes it crystal clear to anyone who may still have doubts that New York has zero tolerance for bigotry of any kind.”
Employees in New York who wear hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and other garments as a practice of their religious can now enjoy their jobs confident that the New York State Human Rights Law protects them from employment discrimination because of their religious attire or facial hair. New York also became one of the first states in the nation to ban discrimination based on ethnic hairstyles (https://www.employmentlit.com/2019/03/14/is-your-hairstyle-protected/).
If you have questions on New York’s “Religious Garb Bill” or how your religious freedom is protected under state and federal laws, we encourage you to consult an employment attorney.
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