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Bill to Fight Workplace Bias May Have a Chance This Year

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have again introduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, hoping a new set of supporters will help push it into law.

The bill, introduced Tuesday, is aimed at preventing workplace religious discrimination by forcing employers to accommodate religious needs.

The bill is no stranger to Congress. Several attempts to get it enacted into law have failed.

This year, however, there appears to be more bipartisan support for the bill, and advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic about its chances of success.

“It’s about the strongest set of co-sponsors on the bill that we’ve ever had,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

The bill would clarify an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed nearly 30 years ago that requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” the needs of religious employees unless it causes the employer “undue hardship.”

The courts have broadly interpreted undue hardship and given employers a lot of latitude in deciding whether to accommodate employees’ religious practices.

Foltin, chairman of a coalition of religious and civil rights organizations working to pass the bill, said the Workplace Religious Freedom Act would restore to the Civil Rights Act amendment the weight that Congress originally intended.

“The Workplace Religious Freedom Act is crucial civil rights legislation meant to ensure that all members of society, whatever their religious beliefs and practices, are protected from this invidious form of discrimination.”

Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) joined Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in introducing the bill. A staff member for Hutchinson said the congressman decided to co- sponsor the bill after he received a number of letters from organizations describing religious discrimination on the job.

Nadler, who has supported the bill in the past, sees the legislation as a way to obligate employers to accommodate their employees’ religious practices and give employees the right to a fundamental protection.

“No one should have to choose between the right to worship freely and the need to earn a living,” he said.

For example, the legislation would help observant Jews and Seventh-day Adventists who have been forced to work on Saturdays, Muslim women who have been asked to remove their head scarves while at work and devout Christians who have been made to work on Sunday or Christmas.

The Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, which considers the Workplace Religious Freedom Act one of its top legislative priorities, notes the bill’s introduction is particularly timely in light of a recent settlement between the State of New York and Sears over the company’s failure to accommodate the needs of Sabbath-observant workers.

But the bill, which has the support of every leading Jewish organization, likely faces the same opposition it has in previous years, much of it from the business and labor communities. Those interest groups have argued that making special accommodations would upset labor practices by granting certain employees unique privileges and disrupting union rules.

In 1997, the federal government enacted guidelines to protect religious expression. The guidelines only applied to employees at all federal agencies, but the private sector often looks to apply the federal government’s employment practices.

The guidelines made it easier, among other things, for federal employees to observe religious holidays, wear religious garb and engage in discussions about religion while at work.

The current law has helped many people but it never really lived up to its original promise, said Abba Cohen, counsel for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox Jewish organization that helped draft the legislation and has been active in the issue for more than 10 years.

“The standards and requirements are so low now that employers don’t bother to accommodate employees, and employees don’t bother asserting their rights,” Cohen said. The new legislation will, Cohen hopes, bring about a greater religious understanding into the workplace.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the guidelines did a good job of sketching things out, but that the Workplace Religious Freedom Act is the next step.

While it is difficult to move legislation now because of the short legislative calendar, Pelavin left room for a potential success story for the bill.

“It’s possible people will view this as consensus legislation and use it as an election issue,” he said.

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