WASHINGTON, June 14 (JTA) — A recent court case involving discrimination against an Orthodox Jew highlights the need for a religious freedom law that could prevent such incidents from occurring, some Jewish groups say.
A U.S. jury on Monday awarded $100,000 to a former telephone company employee who was fired months after he began following Orthodox Jewish practice.
Jewish groups have lobbied for years in favor of religious freedom in the workplace, but changes proposed to federal law to strengthen religious accommodation at work never seem to get very far in Congress.
The case of former BellSouth employee Jeffrey Bander shows that workplace discrimination is an issue that must be addressed, these groups say.
Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee and chair of the Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace, said Bander’s allegations were particularly egregious and not representative of most “run-of-the-mill” discrimination cases.
Nevertheless, it shows there is a need for legislation so that employers know they must accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, Foltin said.
Bander claimed a supervisor told him to shave his beard and stop wearing a yarmulka, and said he couldn’t work with Bander — who became Orthodox after his eldest son was killed by a drunk driver — because “you people think you’re better.”
BellSouth maintains that Bander was fired because he failed to follow procedures for taking time off. The company says it will appeal the ruling.
Under the Civil Rights Act, employers are required to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious practice or observance unless doing so would constitute an “undue” hardship.
But supporters of religious freedom say the courts never properly interpreted the law, and employers have not faced any meaningful obligation to accommodate their workers’ religious practices.
The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, introduced last year by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), seeks to clarify the concept of undue hardship by defining it as “significant difficulty or expense.” The bill was referred to committee, but languished there without being brought to a vote.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a previous attempt to protect religious freedoms. Unlike that law, WRFA only addresses religious freedom in the workplace.
The legislation would accomplish two things, according to David Zwiebel, the executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.
One would be to make the law more effective by making it more difficult for employers to deny a worker’s religious observance.
The other is to create a climate that makes employers understand that they must accommodate religious differences.
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said discrimination cases “crop up on a regular basis.”
Diament said the O.U. is actively talking to House and Senate offices to build support for an attempt to pass legislation based on Nadler’s bill.
Nadler plans to reintroduce the bill this session, according to his press secretary, Eric Schmeltzer.
Schmeltzer rates its chances of passing as only 50-50, however, as the issue could again die in committee unless it becomes a congressional priority.