WASHINGTON, Aug. 14 (JTA) — Jewish federal workers can now wear a yarmulke or post a mezuzah on their office door, but it is not clear whether private sector employees will soon have the same rights. “Religious freedom is at the heart of what it means to be an American, and at the heart of our journey to become truly one America,” President Clinton said Thursday as he announced new guidelines ordering federal agencies to allow workers as much freedom as possible in expressing their religion while on the job. Clinton issued the executive guidelines at a White House ceremony. The guidelines, which reinforce existing laws, protect religious expression provided that it does not diminish job efficiency or come across as government endorsement of a particular faith. The guidelines apply to employees at all federal agencies, with the exception of uniformed military service members. “We have to do more to protect and advance religious freedom, to strengthen the right of individuals to follow the dictates of conscience without weakening the Constitution,” Vice President Al Gore said. The guidelines would make it easier, among other things, for federal employees to observe religious holidays, wear religious garb, engage in discussions about religion or keep a Bible or Koran on their desks to read during breaks. The new federal guidelines do not chart any new legal ground. Instead, it specifies real-life examples of what is and isn’t permitted. It is okay, for example, for your boss to invite you to his son’s Bar Mitzvah, but he would not be allowed to say to a employee, “I didn’t see you in church this week. I expect to see you there this Sunday.” Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress who helped write the guidelines, said that in the past it might have taken years of litigation to secure such rights and protections. Now, with the guidelines in place, “you don’t have to hire a lawyer anymore,” he said. In addition to AJCongress, the White House also enlisted the help of other religious and civil liberties groups, including the Christian Legal Society, the National Council of Churches, People for the American Way and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Clinton’s action comes about two months after the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1993 law that made it harder for government to interfere with the free practice of religion. The White House has been exploring various avenues to restore provisions of the law, but administration officials said the guidelines issued Thursday have been in the works for years and were not intended as a direct response to the court ruling. The guidelines stem primarily from an attempt by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1993 to ban harassment in the workplace, including religious harassment. That proposal was met by strong protest from religious groups and some members of Congress who said the EEOC was defining religious harassment too broadly. Unlike the EEOC guidelines that would have applied to all workplaces, Clinton’s directive will only apply to the federal government. Religious freedom advocates hope, however, that the principle can be extended more broadly. “We do hope that state governments and the private sector will see” these guidelines “as a very helpful model for how to accommodate the religious freedom of their workers in a way that does not step over the separation of church and state,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center. Jewish activists, for their part, specifically hope Clinton’s action can give a boost to the Workplace Religious Freedom Act — a bill aimed at preventing religious discrimination in the workplace by forcing employees to accommodate their employees’ religious needs. That bill would go further than the guidelines for federal employers in changing the standards for religious accommodation. Advocates are hoping to make a concerted push for the measure after Congress returns from its August recess.
NEWS ANALYSIS Religious freedom at work: Federal guidelines lead the way