Employers’ religious tolerance falls short

Sunday, April 30, 2000

Millions of American workers take their religion very seriously. Unfortunately, many of their employers don't.

In a recent survey conducted by the Tanenbaum Center, two-thirds of respondents viewed religious discrimination as an important issue in the workplace. One in five workers had either experienced religious discrimination or knew of a co-worker who had.

One of the saddest findings was that Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim workers not only experienced religious bias, they expected it. Employees reported painful experiences related to religious practice, such as being mocked for their religious garb or being refused a break for prayer time.

For some workers, religious commitment can lead to unemployment. Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations tells of Christians fired for refusing to work on Sunday, Jews refused employment because of their inability to work on Saturday and Muslims told to choose between their job and wearing a head scarf.

Is this widespread? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charges of discrimination related to religion have increased 28% since 1992.

Business owners aren't rushing to do anything to improve matters. The Tanenbaum Center claims that only 18% of employers train their managers in how to handle religious requests for accommodation and only 19% include religion in their diversity training programs.

Now a broad coalition of religious groups, ranging from the American Jewish Committee to the Southern Baptist Convention, is calling on Congress to address the problem by finally passing the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), first introduced two and a half years ago.

WRFA has strong bipartisan support led by John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in the Senate and by Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) in the House.

The intent of the act is to strengthen the provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious needs of their employees unless doing so would impose undue hardship on the business.

Since polls show that religion is important to 90% of American adults, you'd think politicians would be eager to support WRFA. But opposition from the business lobby has hurt the bill's chances.

Would WRFA make life a bit more complicated for business owners? Perhaps. But in a nation committed to religious freedom, is it really too much to ask for a little more flexibility in scheduling or more sensitivity to the religious requirements of workers?

Besides, religious accommodation is good business. In this era of the tight labor market, creating a work environment that's free of religious discrimination and accommodating to religious obligations makes sense for the bottom line.

WRFA is also good for the nation. Unlike speeches made to Congress about the value of religious faith, passage of this legislation will actually help protect religious practice. With WRFA signed into law, millions of American workers can follow the dictates of conscience – and keep their jobs at the same time.