SB 403 Aims to Explicitly Ban Caste-Based Discrimination in California

California may soon become the first state in the United States of America to explicitly make caste-based discrimination illegal. This is after the state Assembly passed SB 403 on August 28, 2023. A previous version of the bill, which added caste as a new category of protected characteristics under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), passed the state Senate before going through revisions. On August 28, 2023, the revised SB 403 was passed by the state Assembly with a near undisputed vote. SB 403 is now waiting for the state Senate to sign it. After the state Senate signs SB 403, the bill will go to Governor Gavin Newson for the final signing.

The FEHA already makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees and job applicants based on several protected characteristics. One of the protected characteristics under the FEHA is ancestry. Other protected characteristics under the Act include color, religion, race, marital status, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, and sex. The FEHA already protects employees and job applicants against caste-based discrimination because it bans ancestry-based discrimination. However, the law does not explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination. SB 403 is meant to clarify that protections on the basis of ancestry under the FEHA include protections under caste-based discrimination. The bill aims to list caste as part of the definition of ancestry. SB 403 is a declarative of already existing law. This law does not mean that ancestry-based discrimination does not already include caste-based discrimination. Apart from the new definition of ancestry being included in the FEHA, if the bill is signed into law, the definition will also be included in the Unruh Civil Rights Act and provisions of the Education Code.

So, what is caste? This is a social structure handed down through families. The caste system assigns people to different hierarchical social groups (i.e., their caste) based on their birth and ancestry. Once people are assigned to various hierarchical social groups, they must limit their participation in society as prescribed by their caste. The caste system can dictate what kind of job an individual can do and whom they can get married to. This system has also resulted in other forms of social exclusion and public segregation. The caste system affects many people, especially people from South Asia.

According to supporters of SB 403, while some people may assume caste-based discrimination is not a problem in the California workforce, the truth is that it is a problem. While caste has not been legal in India for over seventy years, caste-based views persist. Unfortunately, these views have made their way into the work cultures of some California employers. On the other hand, critics of the bill believe that if SB 403 is passed, it may lead to the unfair stigmatization of people of South Asian descent as potential victims and perpetrators of caste-based discrimination. All that is left to do now is to wait and see if the bill becomes law. However, it is expected that SB 403 will soon become law.

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Contact a qualified California employment lawyer for more information on SB 403.