California Landmark Cases on Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Under Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an employer may not discriminate against an employee "in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment" based on "religious creed." (Gov. Code, 12940, subd. (a); California Fair Employment & Housing Com. v. Gemini Aluminum Corp. (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 1004, 1011 (Gemini).) Furthermore, an employer may not discriminate "because of a conflict between the person's religious belief or observance and any employment requirement, unless the employer . . . demonstrates that it has explored any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating the religious belief or observance, including the possibilities of excusing the person from those duties that conflict with his or her religious belief or observance or permitting those duties to be performed at another time or by another person, but is unable to reasonably accommodate the religious belief or observance without undue hardship . . . on the conduct of the business of the employer . . . ." (Gov. Code, 12940, subd. (l).) "Religious belief or observance . . . includes, but is not limited to, observance of a Sabbath or other religious holy day or days . . . ." (Ibid.) "Because of the similarity between state and federal employment discrimination laws, California courts look to pertinent federal precedent when applying our own statutes." (Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 354.) California has adopted the burden-shifting test established by the United States Supreme Court for trying claims of discrimination based on a theory of disparate treatment. (Ibid.) "'Disparate treatment' is intentional discrimination against one or more persons on prohibited grounds." (Rosenfeld v. Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, Inc. (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 886, 893.) Under this burden-shifting process, the plaintiff has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. (Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203, 214.) There are three elements to a prima facie case of failing to accommodate an employee's religious practices under Government Code section 12940, subdivision (l): "The employee sincerely held a religious belief; the employer was aware of that belief; and the belief conflicted with an employment requirement." (Gemini, supra, 122 Cal.App.4th at p. 1011.) If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to establish that "'it initiated good faith efforts to accommodate or no accommodation was possible without producing undue hardship. '" (Gemini, supra, 122 Cal.App.4th at p. 1011, quoting Soldinger v. Northwest Airlines, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 345, 370.) The defendant "bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence the existence of legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the employment action . . . ." (Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine (1981) 450 U.S. 248, 252.) To do this, the defendant must clearly set forth, through admissible evidence, the reasons for the employment action that are "legally sufficient to justify a judgment for the defendant." (Id. at p. 255.) If the defendant does so, the plaintiff must show that the proffered reasons are a pretext for discrimination, or produce other evidence of a discriminatory motive. (Harris v. City of Santa Monica, supra, 56 Cal.4th at pp. 214-215.) "The ultimate burden of persuasion on the issue of discrimination remains with the plaintiff." (Id. at p. 215.)