Faith at Work

Posted on May 12, 2005 In Blog

Faith at Work
May 12, 2005
The New York Sun

It’s not just pharmacists who may confront issues of conscience in the workplace. Although recent media reports have highlighted a number of cases in which pharmacists have refused to dispense “morning after”
pills or contraceptives, making the corner drugstore the next battleground in the culture wars between right and left, there are many other workplace situations in which people of faith may have to choose between their career and their conscience.

Scenarios involving conservative faith traditions are easily imagined:
the scientist whose lab takes on a new stem cell research project, the Web designer whose company accepts a contract to design a pornographic Web site, or the nurse whose hospital undertakes to perform abortions.
But adherents to progressive faith traditions may confront conflicts,
too: the engineer whose company is awarded a military contract at odds with her faith’s pacifist teachings, the legal secretary in a district attorney’s office suddenly assigned to work on a death penalty prosecution, or an attorney at a private firm which takes on the defense of a tobacco company.

And even the situation of the pharmacists, which has received so much attention of late in the context of birth control medications, might be thought of differently were we to consider pharmacists in Oregon where physician assisted suicide is legal. Would those who have confidently proposed legislation to compel pharmacists to dispense any legal prescription be as quick to do so when the prescription is for poison as opposed to progesterone?

These and countless other situations – presenting a person of faith with a difficult choice between personal belief and professional demands – exist in a nation as religiously and ideologically diverse as America.

There are two approaches to how we can deal with these dilemmas as a society. The first would be the “free market” approach. People should consider the possible conflicts between their faith and their beliefs before taking a job. Accepting the job is accepting to do whatever the job entails irrespective of one’s beliefs, and the employer owes no duty to try to accommodate those beliefs. If an employee finds a conflict too much to bear, he is free to quit and look for a livelihood elsewhere.
While this approach may appeal to libertarian impulses, it is at odds with American values.

America, of course, was founded to foster religious liberty; first for the Christian pilgrims, but ultimately codified in the First Amendment for all persons of all faiths. In the modern era, even after the Civil Rights Act outlawed religious discrimination in employment, Congress realized that it was insufficient to only prohibit outright discrimination without also encouraging employers to accommodate the religious practices of their employees in the workplace. Thus, in 1972, the act was amended to require employers to “reasonably accommodate” the religious needs of their employees so long as doing so did not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer.

For a number of years, this legal provision worked well. It encouraged employers and employees to work out appropriate accommodations for common situations, adjusting work schedules for a person to be off on a holy day and allowing people to wear yarmulkes or other religious garb to the workplace. But a series of court decisions eviscerated this law and it is now without any real legal force. If an employer contends he will suffer even a minimal inconvenience, the employer does not need to provide an accommodation. Thus, we have seen Sabbath observers fired for not wishing to work on their holy day, Muslim women fired for wearing head scarves to work, and Sikh men losing jobs over their beards.

In the face of all these types of issues – scheduling, garb and conscience – a broad coalition of religious communities – ranging from the Southern Baptists to the National Council of Churches, Orthodox and Reform Jews, the Family Research Council, and the Anti-Defamation League
– has joined congressional sponsors as diverse as Senators Santorum and Kerry to propose the Workplace Religious Freedom Act; tri-state area proponents of WRFA include Senators Clinton, Schumer, Corzine, and Lieberman, Reps. Carolyn McCarthy, Anthony Weiner, and Major Owens, as well as State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

WRFA would reinstate the principle that an employer should reasonably accommodate the religious needs of an employee so long as doing so does not unduly burden the employer’s operations nor adversely affect the interests of other third parties such as customers or other employees.

Thus, to take the example of the moment, an individual pharmacist who has an objection to dispensing a “morning after” pill or an assisted suicide prescription would have her religious belief accommodated if the pharmacy could still dispense the product it wishes to sell, presumably through another pharmacist. But WRFA would also allow for all people of all faiths to have their religious needs accommodated in the workplace so long as doing so would not adversely affect others. This approach has been tested in New York, a state as diverse as any, over the past few years through a state statute, and there have not been reports of difficulties to date.

Early drafts of the First Amendment were worded to explicitly protect freedom of conscience. That text was put aside for a guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion – the right to not only believe freely, but to act in conformity with those beliefs. A neutral rule of religious accommodation in the workplace, which recognizes the legitimate rights of religious employees, as well as their employers and customers, is the appropriate and moderate approach to minimize these conflicts for all Americans.