Senators urge more protection for workers’ religious convictions

Thursday, September 30, 1999

Claiming that it is far too easy for employers nationwide to impede their workers' religious liberties, two senators have introduced a bill that would require greater efforts by employers to accommodate religious practices on the job.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., yesterday, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., introduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 1999. If passed, the bill would amend Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make sure that all aspects of an employee's religious observance, practice and belief are accommodated by the employer. According to the bill an employer would have to show that accommodating an employee's religious practice — such as permitting Muslim women to wear head scarves — would cause undue hardship in the workplace.

Kerry said the new bill would protect workers from on-the-job discrimination related to religious beliefs and practices. Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee, one of the groups advocating the bill's passage, said he was encouraged by Kerry's optimism about the bill's chances for success.

“There is a lot of hard work to do and persistence in educating members and the public about the importance of the bill,” Foltin said. “But Kerry's words of encouragement say to me that he will devote his energies to the bill's success and that is good news.”

“No worker should have to choose between their job and their most fundamental religious beliefs,” Kerry said. “These are liberties upon which our country was founded and this legislation writes into law the intent of our founders that religious freedoms are protected.”

The legislation is supported by an array of religious groups and civil rights advocates, including the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Committee and Republican presidential hopeful Gary Bauer's Family Research Council.

Foltin says courts have interpreted Title VII so narrowly that religious believers do not have recourse against employers insensitive to their convictions.

Title VII says that employers cannot discriminate against employees based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity or veteran status and requires them to “reasonably accommodate” the religious needs of their employees. If the Kerry-Brownback bill succeeds, Title VII would require employers to honor reasonable religious requests by employees, unless the accommodation would produce serious difficulty or expense.

“It is time for religious discrimination to be taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination,” Foltin said. “Although many employers do provide accommodation for religious observances, too many still don't make reasonable accommodations for Sabbath observers.”

Brownback also spoke at the news conference, saying that in “a land of religious freedom,” people should not be forced “to choose between keeping their faith and keeping their job.”

According to Foltin and officials of groups such as the ACLJ and the Family Research Council, too many Americans find that their religious practices hinder their job performance.

Last year a waitress at a restaurant in the D.C. area was fired after she told her boss that she could not join the staff in singing “Happy Birthday” to a customer. The waitress, a Jehovah's Witness, said her religious beliefs didn't allow the celebration of birthdays. Although her grievance was later settled — the restaurant agreed to pay her more than $50,000 and to implement a new religious-accommodation policy — many employees simply are left with choosing between their faith and employment, Foltin said.

Carl H. Esbeck, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said the bill would not only help protect workers' religious liberties but bolster business productivity.

“Eliminating conflicts of conscience for an employee comports with the first freedom of Americans: religious liberty,” Esbeck said in a statement issued after the press conference. “It also makes business sense. An accommodated worker of faith will be a grateful, faithful worker. Conversely, forcing an employee to choose between her job and her deepest convictions will ultimately increase job turnover and decrease productivity.”

Kerry introduced a workplace-religion act in 1997, but the bill never made it to the Senate floor.