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California Legislature

Anti-discrimination measure or blow to religious freedom? California bill sparks debate on employer codes of conduct

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A measure that would bar employers from firing workers for having an abortion or giving birth to a child out of wedlock is getting pushback from religious groups who say such a bill would prevent them from requiring employees to act in accordance with their faith.

Under the bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), employers would not be able to discipline or fire workers for any reproductive health decision, such as pregnancy, in-vitro fertilization or abortion.

"What this bill does is make sure that people can make the best healthcare decisions for themselves and for their families without the fear that they'll risk their livelihoods in doing so," Rebecca Griffin of NARAL Pro-Choice California, a sponsor of the measure, said at a Wednesday afternoon hearing at the Capitol.

A teacher at a Christian college in San Diego was fired in 2012 for becoming pregnant while unmarried. The school said her pregnancy violated its employee code of conduct, which prohibited premarital sex. In 2015, San Francisco Archibishop Salvatore Cordileone sparked a backlash when he proposed a new morality clause in the faculty handbook and contract for local Catholic schools that opposed same-sex marriage and certain reproductive medical procedures.

With employees being fired for code of conduct violations in other states, proponents said California should set an example for the country,

"Right now, while we're facing a federal government that is attacking reproductive freedom at every turn and condoning the type of discrimination that this bill prohibits, we feel like this is the time for California to take a stand for our values and make sure that our workers have the best protections possible,” Griffin said.

But the proposal faces opposition from religious groups, who argue such codes of conduct are integral to the relationship with their workers.

"The bill would specifically deny religious employers our 1st Amendment protections to infuse our codes of conduct with the tenets of our faith," said Sandra Palacios of the California Catholic Conference. 

The reaction from religious groups was not uniformly negative. The Rev. Rick Schlosser, executive director of the California Council of Churches, which represents mainline Protestant and Orthodox denominations, pointed to the diverse positions on reproductive issues among his group's members to explain his support for the bill.

"Any legislation that limits people's ability to make their own moral decisions is harmful to religious freedom," said Schlosser.

But other religious groups said the measure threatened to undermine the very purpose of requiring their employees to abide by a code of conduct. 

"An organization specifically chartered to support or oppose a specific set of beliefs or actions cannot fulfill its mission without requiring adherence to a code of conduct," wrote Jonathan Keller, president of the conservative California Family Council, in an opposition letter.

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond) asked why such codes of conduct should govern a personal decision an employee makes out of the workplace.

"Our community covenant does say that our employees are required to uphold our biblical values, and that certainly is a 'round-the-clock priority for us," responded Phillip Escamilla, the public policy chair of William Jessup University, a Sacramento-area evangelical Christian college

Gonzalez Fletcher, herself a practicing Catholic, said she was not trying to unfairly target religious institutions. But, she said, she was trying to combat an "inherent sexism" that comes with enforcing such codes of conduct.

A female employee's reproductive decisions — such as entering an abortion clinic or being pregnant out of wedlock — can be seen by her employer, Gonzalez Fletcher said.

"A male's decisions to whether or not they're going to abide by a conduct never rise to that level," she said. "So that inherent difference in how women and men are treated with these types of decisions just show how little privacy women are able to maintain."

The bill, AB 569, cleared the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, its first legislative threshold, on a 4-2 vote.

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