WASHINGTON (Jun. 14)
Victims of religious harassment in the workplace could have a harder time redressing their grievances if a coalition of conservative organizations and senators succeeds in throwing out a set of guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The EEOC guidelines on religion, which were issued for the first time last year and are subject to a period of public comment prior to official enactment, have come under attack by conservative Christian groups such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.
The conservatives, backed by a group of at least 21 senators, contend that the guidelines would create a religion-free workplace rather than shield employees from harassment.
In a letter to acting EEOC chair Tony Gallegos, the senators, led by Sens. Richard Shelby (D-Ala.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.), urged the EEOC to remove religion as a category protected against harassment and discrimination.
Many Jewish organizations and Christian groups have joined forces to combat the push from the right in an effort to maintain religion as a protected category — along with sex, race and national origin.
Businesses use EEOC guidelines to set policies for hiring, firing and general workplace rules in an effort to prevent discrimination lawsuits.
In addition, nearly every employee who accuses an employer of discrimination must file a complaint with the EEOC before pursuing a lawsuit.
In its guidelines on religion, EEOC defined harassment as “verbal or physical conduct” that shows hostility toward an individual because of his or her religion.
Opponents of the guidelines say the language is such that it would discourage any discussion of religion, including an invitation to a Bible supper or a church function.
While some Jewish groups have said the EEOC language is problematic, they contend that the guidelines are necessary in order to avoid outright discrimination.
“Religious harassment is a real problem and a serious problem,” said Abba Cohen, Washington director of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox group.
According to Cohen, observant Jews are often harassed with questions concerning their style of dress or their refusal to work on Shabbat.
‘WHAT KIND OF SIGNAL WOULD THAT SEND?’
“We are profoundly concerned about the issue of free religious expression, but the answer is not to take religion out of the dialogue and to hurt religious workers,” Cohen said. “The answer is to protect all Americans rights.”
EEOC first published its guidelines defining religious harassment last year.
The guidelines drew little response until the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist Christian leader, sent a “Dear Christian Friend” fund-raising letter in March.
In his letter, Falwell claimed that workers could be “fired for saying a prayer over lunch,” “keeping a Bible on your desk” or “wearing a cross.”
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the subject last week, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), called Falwell’s assertions “absurd and ridiculous.”
“It is simply unacceptable to exclude religious harassment from the EEOC guidelines,” Metzenbaum said.
“What kind of signal would that send? That we abhor racial or sexual slurs, but that religious slurs are somehow less abhorrent, or even acceptable?” the senator asked.
American Jewish Congress counsel Mark Stern accused the religious groups of turning the debate over the EEOC guidelines on religion into “Armageddon.”
At a news conference preceding the Senate hearing, Stern said, “Evangelical and deeply religious Christians in this country ought to be the last people urging a rule of law that would permit harassment, because there are plenty of places where they would be the victims.”
Stern testified at the hearing on behalf of a broad coalition that included the American Jewish Committee, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Anti-Defamation League, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists.
Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel at the AJCommittee’s office of government and international affairs agreed with the importance of the guidelines.
“Removing religion from the proposed guidelines would do nothing to protect religious free exercise,” Foltin said.
“To the contrary, doing so would only give free rein to those who would make the workplace inhospitable to employees with whose religious views they disagree,” he said.
The EEOC, meanwhile, is not revealing how it will rule on the guidelines.
At the Senate hearing last week, EEOC officials said the commission would issue a decision after the public comment period concludes at the end of June.