Bipartisan Unity For Bill Supporting Workplace Religion
BY LUIZA Ch. SAVAGE – Staff Reporter of the Sun
March 18, 2005 – URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/10776
WASHINGTON – A bill that would place a heavier burden on employers to accommodate the religious practices of their employees has a good chance of becoming law this year, a bipartisan group of its backers in Congress said.
Senator Kerry, a Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Santorum, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican, yesterday reintroduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act in the Senate, where Mr. Kerry predicted “overwhelming support” for the legislation.
Mr. Kerry has been pushing the bill for almost a decade, since he was contacted by “two Catholic ladies who lost their jobs because they couldn’t work on Christmas,” he said at a press conference yesterday.
“No American should ever have to choose between keeping a job and keeping faith with their cherished religious beliefs and traditions,” he said.
Senators Schumer and Clinton also support the bill.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat of New York, and Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican of Indiana, are championing the bill in the House. Its supporters also include Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat of Queens, who is running for mayor of New York City.
The legislation faces opposition from some liberal lawmakers concerned by warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that predict the law will enable harassment of homosexuals or restrict access to abortions. Some conservatives are also wary of the bill, saying it would impose new burdens on business owners. Supporters say such concerns are misplaced.
The high participation of religious voters in the November elections has given the bill new momentum, said the director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Nathan Diament, one of the bill’s champions.
“There is no piece of legislation on Capitol Hill right now that has as large or as broad support in the faith communities as the WRFA,” said Mr. Diament.
A broad coalition of more than 40 religious and civil rights groups, ranging from the Conference of Catholic Bishops to the North American Council for Muslim Women, support the legislation.
Current law requires employers to accommodate religious practices as long as they do not incur more than minimal cost or difficulty in doing so. The bill would change the test to require accommodation unless the employer faces a significant difficulty.
Mr. Souder said that has concerned some Republicans who worry about the cost to businesses. “I understand as a retail businessman that there are tradeoffs,” said Mr. Souder, a managing partner in a company that owns historic shops. “In most places, this isn’t a real business threat.”
The proposed federal legislation is similar to a state law in New York that allows employees to negotiate work schedules that accommodate their religious observances, or to wear religious headgear to work. New York’s law was modeled after the draft federal legislation, and it offers the most “comprehensive” protections in the country, Mr. Diament said.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has used the law to sue FedEx for refusing to promote employees who wear beards or dreadlocks for religious reasons, for example.
“New York’s law has not resulted in the infringement of the rights of others, or in the additional litigation that the ACLU predicts will occur if WRFA is enacted. Nor has it been burdensome on business,” Mr.
Spitzer wrote in the Forward newspaper in June 2004.
Supporters say the bill would restore the intended meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that required employers to “reasonably accommodate” the religious practices of employees as long as doing so did not impose an “undue hardship” upon the employer. A series of court decisions had lessened this protection.
The bill would not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees.
As published in The New York Sun