Free to Have a Career — And a Conscience

A Jewish appliance repair worker, a Catholic racetrack clerk, a Mennonite trucker and a Muslim hotel worker: What do these people have in common? They’ve all been discriminated against on the job because of their religion. They have not been fired because of their beliefs; they’ve been fired or forced to quit because they take their beliefs seriously enough to translate them into action.

The Jewish repairman applied for a job with Sears. Although he scored high on the Sears qualification exam, he was refused employment because of his inability to work on Saturday, the day Sears claimed was its busiest for repair work. As revealed in the recently announced half-million-dollar settlement between Sears and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Sears’s busiest day for repairmen is Tuesday, and the company needed to do a better job on religious accommodation.

Kathy Pielich, the racetrack worker, was startled to learn that her employer had chosen to open for business on Christmas; she was even more surprised when he refused to allow her willing co-workers to swap days with her so she could observe Christmas, and she lost her job.

Ed Pipkin told Maryland-based Bowman Trucking in his job interview that he would not be available to drive on the Sunday Sabbath, and he was hired with that understanding. When the company was busy and needed more drivers on Sundays, Pipkin effectively was informed that he was to drive and violate his Sabbath or find work elsewhere.

Hanem Zahwy is a devout Muslim who wears a head scarf. She applied to work at a new hotel in Virginia but was refused employment as a front desk clerk because of the head scarf.

America is indeed a land where religious freedom is bountiful–at least until it runs into other powerful interests championed by our society, such as unfettered market capitalism or rampant liberal secularism. Devotees of each of these respective philosophies are blocking our attempts to remedy this situation through the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a measure introduced in the House this year.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was once understood to require employers to reasonably accommodate the religious needs of their employees. In recent years, however, courts have interpreted the law so narrowly that there is almost no protection for the religious needs of employees. The new act would reinstate employers’ obligations to attempt to accommodate religious needs. Worried about anything that might affect their bottom line, organized businesses are opposing the legislation.

In a similar fashion, labor unions, which are happy to press for increased protections for workers’ secular needs–family and medical leave, etc.–have expressed “concern” about the act’s provisions designed to ameliorate any obstacles to employers’ accommodating an employee’s religious needs (such as waiving overtime wages for flex hours worked to gain a religious day off). Thus, even though this bill would benefit rank-and-file workers, we’ve received little help from big labor in moving it forward.

But there is hope. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act is one of those rare public-policy ventures that, because it really would do the right thing for America’s values and interests, unites more people than it divides. The coalition of religious communities supporting this effort includes the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Family Research Council and the Orthodox Union. Moreover, it has bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act is a vehicle by which Congress can demonstrate that its frequent tributes to religion are not mere rhetoric but evidence of the abiding values that America’s laws must promote and protect. The act will ensure that no American will be forced to choose between conscience and career.
The writer is Director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

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