New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Wednesday an enforcement initiative to protect the religious rights of increasingly diverse New Yorkers while they're at work and elsewhere.
The attorney general's office is targeting faith-based discrimination with outreach, inviting reports of potential violations, issuing guidance on workplace measures like flexible scheduling and dress codes, and threatening civil rights lawsuits for violations.
"In the past 20 years, New York state has become much more pluralistic. We have more diversity in religious practices," Schneiderman said at an Anti-Defamation League luncheon Wednesday in New York City. "The growth of our Hassidic and other Jewish communities, of the number of observant Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, has been staggering, and frankly, we need to adjust things in the office of the New York State Attorney General to deal with this new, more pluralistic reality."
The office has assigned legal staff and begun issuing publications outlining worker rights under state and federal laws. They require employers to accommodate religious practices such as observance of holy days, unless that creates an "undue hardship" on the employer, and try to accommodate religious dress and prayer during the workday.
Religious discrimination claims filed with the federal government have more than doubled since 1997, Schneiderman said. He noted examples like a Muslim worker denied the opportunity to pray during work hours, a restaurant telling a Sikh man he must remove his turban and a condominium association telling a Jewish family to remove a Mezuzah from their front door while letting others hang flags and flowers outside their homes. He said they believe many more cases go unreported.
The office's Civil Rights Bureau is investigating allegations of failure to accommodate religious observances in the workplace and religious-based housing restrictions, spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said, declining to disclose details.
"We have received a number of religious-based complaints this year — and the impetus for this project follows the data at the federal level and the anecdotal evidence of outside organizations of a rise in faith-based discrimination issues," she said.
As a result of the initiative, they anticipate an increase in complaints, Passalacqua said. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data show 2,137 filed religious discrimination complaints resolved nationally in 1997 compared with 3,782 last year, with no reasonable cause found in about two-thirds of each group.
"It's hard enough, in this economy, to get a job at all — or hold on to one, and try to move up," Schneiderman said. "No one should be denied a job or a promotion, or suffer a hostile work environment, because of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof."