WASHINGTON — A coalition of religious groups pushes for a bill that will protect religious expression in the workplace. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, introduced recently by Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), would require employers to "reasonably accommodate" workers who want to wear religious articles or take off time for worship services. Civil liberties groups worry that the bill, S-893, which is awaiting action in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, could be used to advance on-the-job proselytizing.
The current law mandates that employers allow such expression as long as it does not impose an "undue hardship" on the company. However, supporters of the new bill say a 1977 Supreme Court ruling gutted the law by ruling that even a minimal cost to the employer could be considered an "undue hardship" that would trump a worker's rights.
The new bill would narrow the definition of "undue hardship" to something that imposes "significant difficulty or expense" on the employer or that would keep an employee from carrying out the job's "essential functions." The law does not apply to businesses with fewer than 15 employees.
"We need a stronger position so that employers are not denying what is reasonable," said Clarence Hodges, director of public affairs and religious liberty for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, whose Sabbath is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
"They need to understand that 'reasonable' means reasonable, and that you can do what you need to do without upsetting everything and everybody," Hodges added.
One primary case that lead to the proposed bill was that of Amric Singh Rathour, a Sikh, who was fired as a New York City traffic cop when he refused to shave his religiously mandated beard or remove his turban. Rathour's suit against the city, filed in March, is pending.
The committee also defended a New York Rastafarian who was fired from his job at FedEx when he refused to cut his dreadlocks, a part-time Methodist minister who was fired from a furniture store for taking time off to conduct a funeral, and a Muslim woman who was dismissed from Alamo Rent A Car for insisting that she wear a headscarf.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has defended the rights of religious employees over the past few decades, said the current bill is too broad. Christopher Anders, the ACLU's legislative counsel, said the new law would, for example, allow worker actions that have not been protected under current law. Such cases as those of a Catholic police officer in Chicago who refused to guard an abortion clinic, or a state nurse in Connecticut who, while visiting the home of a gay AIDS patient, condemned the man's lifestyle and told him to repent.
There are no protections in the bill to prohibit a worker from forcing religious beliefs on colleagues or from allowing a worker to dictate his or her duties because of religious or moral convictions, Anders said.
"One of the goals of the religious right is to use Title VII to get extra rights that would harm other people in the workplace," Anders said. "The courts have been telling them no," but if the bill passes, "the courts may not be telling them no."
By Pauline J.