Assembly approves measure that would add more protections for religious freedom in workplace

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ The state Assembly has approved a bill that would add more protections for religious freedom in the workplace, specifying that California discrimination laws also should apply to religious clothing, hairstyles and the right to carry religious objects.

The bill's author, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, said she was upset to learn that Sikh and Muslim workers continue to face discrimination at work despite laws prohibiting it.

AB1964, which passed Tuesday on a 59-3 vote, also clarifies that segregating an employee from other workers or the public because of their appearance is not an acceptable accommodation under the law.

"This bill is a little bit like the Rosa Parks issue of the 21st century for me," Yamada said. "To know that there are Sikhs and Muslims relegated to the back of the store in order to continue their employment is particularly heinous."

Some lawmakers noted that the law could save the state from costly legal cases, such as a lawsuit the Department of Corrections settled last year with a Sikh man who was barred from becoming a prison guard because he refused to shave the beard required by his Sikh religion so he could be fitted for a gas mask. The state agreed to pay the man $295,000 in damages and give him a managerial job.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said she was concerned the changes could endanger employees and their co-workers, such as if oilfield workers were unable to don respirators in the event of a gas leak.

Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, an attorney, said he has represented an employee who was terminated for wearing a head scarf.

"The federal law doesn't go far enough to accommodate the issues that are important in the modern workforce," said Wagner, who supported the bill.

The legislation now moves to the state Senate.

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Idaho liquor regulators refuse to stock Five Wives Vodka, call name offensive to residents

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Five Wives Vodka was named in bad taste and won't be stocked or special ordered at stores operated by the state of Idaho, regulators said.

The middle-shelf vodka is made by Ogden's Own Distillery in Utah, where the Mormon church is based. Its label carries the name and an image of five women, an apparent reference to polygamy, a practice abandoned in 1890 by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Idaho State Liquor Division administrator Jeff Anderson said the brand is offensive to Mormons who make up over a quarter of Idaho's population.

"It's masterful marketing on their part. But it doesn't play here," Anderson said.

Ogden's Own Distillery is trying to make the most of the rejection with a media campaign and sale of "Free the Five Wives" T-shirts.

Five Wives Vodka has been approved for sale in Utah, whose residents are predominantly Latter-day Saints. It's also available in Wyoming, another state that regulates liquor sales.

Nobody in Utah is raising a fuss over the brand, said Vickie Ashby, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Utah regulates all sales of hard liquor, wine and heavy beer, making the products available only at state-owned stores. Idaho and Wyoming control liquor sales with a mix of state-owned and privately-operated stores.

Ogden's Own Distillery says the snub is unfair because a Utah beer named Polygamy Porter is available in Idaho. Anderson said Idaho doesn't decide what beer brands can be sold in grocery and convenience stores.

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Neb. groups reports more than 10,000 signatures to challenge Lincoln anti-bias ordinance for gays

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ A petition drive to force a vote on Lincoln's anti-discrimination rule for gay and transgendered people has garnered more than 10,000 signatures, four times the number needed to place the issue on the ballot, organizers said.

Family First and the Nebraska Family Council announced Tuesday that they submitted 10,092 signatures before the filing deadline. Roughly 2,500 signatures were needed from registered voters in Lincoln.

City officials in Lincoln, the state's second-largest city, have said they'll need one to two weeks to verify signatures.

The groups tapped a network of 310 volunteer petition circulators in the days after a vote by the Lincoln City Council. Approved earlier this month, the city ordinance adds sexual orientation and gender preference to a list of factors that are legally protected against discrimination for matters that involve housing, employment and public accommodations.

The city's charter requires the council to either repeal the ordinance _ which appears unlikely, given the 5-0 vote to enact it _ or place the issue to a referendum that would let Lincoln voters decide whether it should go in to effect.

The vote could take place in a special election called by the city or in November's general election. When the city council approved the measure on May 14, two members abstained. City spokeswoman Diane Gonzalez said officials were "still looking at all the options" and would release more details at a news conference Thursday.

Supporters argue that the measure is needed to protect the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals. Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler has called the ordinance a basic matter of fairness and invoked the state motto, "Equality before the law." Opponents claim that any change to the city's charter requires direct voter approval.

The Omaha City Council narrowly approved an ordinance in March that bans employers, job-training programs, labor groups and other organizations from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The measure included exemptions for religious organizations.

The Nebraska Attorney General's office, headed by Republican Jon Bruning, said in a legal opinion this month that cities can't adopt such ordinances because no such protections exist in state law. Gov. Dave Heineman has also said voters should get to decide on Omaha and Lincoln's ordinances.

The attorney general's opinion said voters have the power to extend anti-discrimination protections to those not covered by state law, but city governments cannot. Critics have said the opinion would not stand up in court.

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Israel to fund non-Orthodox rabbis for 1st time

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel's attorney general has announced that non-Orthodox rabbis serving their communities will receive state funding for the first time.

Up to now, the state has recognized and supported only Orthodox rabbis, leaving the more liberal clergy and their congregations without state funding.

The decision was in response to a 2005 appeal by the Reform movement for one of its rabbis, Miri Gold. She welcomed the decision in an interview on Army Radio Tuesday. "This is a historic move of justice in our country," she said.

The Justice Ministry said religious councils could employ liberal rabbis, but they would be called "community leaders," not rabbis.

Unlike in North America, the two liberal streams of Judaism in Israel are tiny compared to the stricter Orthodox.