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Groups Seek Law to Accommodate Religious Beliefs in the Workplace

Jewish groups are now taking the fight for religious liberties directly to the workplace.

Some of the same groups that united to push the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act through Congress are joining again to fight for so-called religious accommodation legislation.

The issue refers to the extent to which an employer accommodates an employee’s religious needs and is important to those who are religiously observant.

For example, Jews celebrate their Sabbath and holidays on days that are different from the majority of Americans and therefore need to negotiate time off with their employers.

And observant Jews, Muslims and others may wear clothing or head coverings that may clash with a workplace dress code.

For many years, the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has adhered to a set of guidelines deemed satisfactory by Jewish organizations.

The guidelines, which cover workplaces employing 15 people or more, allow a certain amount of flexibility in accommodating observant employees.

But the EEOC is now proposing to change its standard to conform to a Supreme Court ruling, and this proposed change is setting off alarm bells in the Jewish community.

Religious groups have worked with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) on legislation that would codify the current EEOC policies, which are supported by Jewish groups.

“This is the private sector version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” a Nadler aide said Wednesday. “We want to give the law the EEOC is charged with enforcing more teeth.”

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act sets limits on government infringement on religious practices, while the Nadler legislation would deal with the workplace.

1964 CIVIL RIGHTS ACT UNDER SCRUTINY

Sources say that the EEOC is likely to institute its new guidelines before Nadler’s bill makes its way through Congress, thus setting the stage for another battle on religious freedom.

The Nadler bill, also backed by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), has long been in the works. It is scheduled to be introduced when Congress returns in January.

Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Agudath Israel of America and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, recently wrote to the EEOC, urging either a delay in the adoption of new guidelines, or a change in the proposed language to allow observant workers more flexibility.

The EEOC is still reviewing those comments, commission spokeswoman Ester Cosby said Wednesday.

All this commotion is taking place because the commission has now decided to act upon a 1986 Supreme Court decision, Ansonia Board of Education vs. Philbrook.

Under the guidelines that the EEOC is proposing to change, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been interpreted to mean that if there was more than one way of accommodating the employee’s religious needs without imposing a hardship on the employer, the method less burdensome to the employee should be selected.

This current method is acceptable to the Jewish community.

But the Philbrook decision interpreted the Civil Rights Act to mean that an employer need only offer an employee a “reasonable” accommodation.

That is not necessarily the one preferred by the employee, a fact that concerns Jewish groups.

In addition, the courts have interpreted the Civil Rights Act to make it easier for the employer to claim “undue hardship” and avoid accommodating a worker’s religious beliefs.

“The Supreme Court has so weakened the laws,” said the Nadler aide, “that the employer has no obligation to protect you.”

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