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Jewish Groups Push for Bill on Workplace Discrimination


When the 105th Congress opens in January, legislation to prevent religious discrimination in the workplace will be high on the Jewish community’s agenda.

Legislation aimed at forcing employers to accommodate their employees’ religious needs was introduced in both houses this month. But it stood little chance as the 104th Congress prepared to adjourn this week.

The measure’s supporters, including just about every leading Jewish group, said they wanted to introduce it now in hopes of making it a campaign issue and giving the legislation a jump-start in the next Congress.

“No American should ever have to choose between their job and the right to practice their religion,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the bill in the House and plans to introduce it again in the next Congress. “The law should strike a reasonable balance between legitimate business considerations and the rights of employees.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who introduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act in the Senate, said, “We need to make sure people have the right to worship without the fear of being fired.”

Current law requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” the needs of religious employees unless it causes the employer “undue hardship.” But it does not define undue hardship, according to proponents of the new legislation.

The courts have interpreted undue hardship broadly, resulting in several rulings giving employers a high degree of latitude in deciding whether to accommodate the religious practices of their employees.

The proposed new standard, based on similar language in the federal law protecting the handicapped against job discrimination, would require employers to prove a “significant difficulty or expense” if they decided not to accommodate a worker’s religious needs.

“In many instances, it is possible to adjust work hours to allow an individual to observe the Sabbath or other religious obligation,” Nadler said. “Similarly, a yarmulke, a turban, a head scarf or other religious article rarely interferes with job performance.

“In these cases, religious observance must not be allowed to become a pretext for limiting employment opportunities.”

Nadler introduced a similar workplace discrimination bill in 1994 at the end of the 103rd Congress, but no action was taken. The issue was relegated to the back burner during the current Congress.

“There’s been so much going on in this Congress that it’s been hard to get people to focus on this one particular issue,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel of the American Jewish Committee and chairman of a coalition of some 25 religious and civil liberties groups that have joined in support of the legislation.

Jewish activists said they intend to make a concerted push for the legislation, regardless of the make-up of the new Congress.

“For any of a number of reasons, including the demands of the Jewish religious calendar and issues of dress, not to mention traditional anti-Semitism born of their obvious Jewishness, Orthodox Jews are often unassured of job security and passed over in hiring and job promotions,” said David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government affairs for Agudath Israel.

“No one,” he added, “should ever be faced with the Hobson’s Choice of either sacrificing his livelihood or compromising his sincerely-held religious beliefs.”

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