California lawmakers on Tuesday voted to outlaw discrimination based on caste, adding protections for people of South Asian descent who say they have been left out of traditional American safeguards for fairness in employment and housing.
The bill — the first of its kind in the U.S. — now heads to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who must decide whether to sign it into law.
Caste is an ancient, complex system that regulates people's social status based on their birth. It's primarily associated with India and Hinduism, but caste-based divisions are also found in other faiths and countries.
State and federal laws already ban discrimination based on sex, race and religion. California's civil rights law goes further by outlawing discrimination based on things like medical conditions, genetic information, sexual orientation, immigration status and ancestry.
Tuesday, the state Senate voted 31-5 to approve a bill that would redefine “ancestry” to include “lineal descent, heritage, parentage, caste, or any inherited social status.” The bill was authored by state Sen. Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan-American woman elected to the state Legislature.
“The more our communities become more and more diverse, we need to go further and deeper to protect more people — even when certain issues are more invisible to the mainstream public,” Wahab said.
India has banned caste discrimination since 1948, the year after it won independence from Great Britain. In recent years, South Asians have been pushing for caste protections on the U.S. Many major U.S. colleges and universities have added caste to their non-discrimination policies, including the University of California and California State University systems. In February, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban discrimination based on caste.
Now, California could become the first state to do so. The bill easily passed the Legislature, with only a few dissenting votes. But the proposal provoked an intense response from the state's South Asian community. A public hearing on the bill this summer lasted hours as hundreds of people lined up around the Capitol to testify for and against the bill.
Opponents argued the bill is unfair because it only applies to people in a caste-based system. A letter to state lawmakers from the Hindu American Foundation earlier this year worried that South Asians could be “forced to answer intrusive questions about or be judged for who they are married to.”
Five Republicans voted against the bill on Tuesday, saying the bill would prompt the government and others to inappropriately judge people of South Asian descent. State Sen. Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, noted caste was a complex system with no universally agreed definition.
“This is not a bill that protects, but it's a bill that profiles,” Grove said.
The vote was one of the first major bills to pass the Legislature during the hectic final two weeks of the legislative session. Lawmakers have until Sept. 14 to act on nearly 1,000 bills that have had a number of public hearings and amendments since they were first introduced. When lawmakers finish, Newsom will have a month to decide whether to sign those bills into law.
In the state Assembly, lawmakers passed a bill aimed at overhauling the process for voters to overturn laws passed by the Legislature.
California voters can veto laws passed by the Legislature. If enough people sign a petition, it triggers a referendum where voters are asked whether they want to keep a certain law or block it.
Last year, the Legislature passed a law to ban new gas and oil wells within 3,200 feet (975 meters) of schools, homes and hospitals. The oil industry gathered enough signatures to challenge that law. The law was put on hold for voters to decide, and proponents of the law launched a separate campaign to ask voters to keep it.
Some critics accused the oil industry of using deceptive tactics to convince voters to sign the petition.
The bill lawmakers passed would require the top funders pushing a ballot referendum to overturn a law be listed on state voter information guides. It would also require statewide referendum measures to ask voters whether they want to “keep the law” or “overturn the law,” as opposed to asking them to select “yes" to keep the law or ”no" to overturn it.
Associated Press reporter Sophie Austin contributed.