Bill Introduced to Ensure Religious Rights in the Workplace

Observant Jews could have an easier time striking the balance between religious and work obligations if Congress acts on a bill introduced earlier this month by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act would increase employers’ obligations to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs as long as this does not cause undue hardship, those who worked on the bill said.

“Employers should not be unduly burdened, but they should take reasonable steps to allow people of all faiths to earn a living,” Nadler said in a speech introducing the bill just before Congress adjourned Oct. 8 for the November elections.

Although the bill had no chance of passing during this past session, advocates hope to gain support for it during the congressional recess.

Among the problems faced by observant Jews in the workplace are leaving early for the Sabbath, requiring days off for holidays and wearing religiously required clothing.

A 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 addresses the issue of religious accommodation.

But the courts so narrowly interpreted the amendment that it left employers with relatively few obligations, said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

ORIGINAL AMENDMENT ‘NEEDED STRENGTHENING’

The bill “would give the protection the weight Congress intended in the first place,” Foltin said.

The Institute for Public Affaris of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America felt the original amendment “needed strengthening,” said Executive Director Betty Ehrenberg, “especially in regard to the Sabbath.”

The bill would also clarify the meaning of “reasonable accommodations,” said Dennis Rapps, executive director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs.

Under the proposed bill, an employer cannot refuse to accommodate employees with religious obligations and suggests that employers accept alternative measures as long as the solution would not cause undue hardship to the business.

The bill would, for example, allow employees to make up time lost for religious reasons and choose when to make up that time.

AJCommittee and the Orthodox Union worked on the bill as members of the Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace, a broad-based coalition that includes many of the same organizations that had worked to secure the passage of last year’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That measure provided protection from undue government encroachment on religious practices.

The coalition includes the American Jewish Congress, the Council on Religious Freedom, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Anti-Defamation League, the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Agudath Israel of America, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Many of the bill’s supporters say it will be a priority in the next session, when, according to Ehrenberg, it will be reintroduced with more “fanfare.”

The coalition will use the recess to mount a campaign to get the bill passed, according to Ehrenberg.

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