Protect Religion Now

Posted on October 18, 2001 In Press Releases

On the first Monday in October, the first day of its new term, the U.S. Supreme Court reacted to the attacks of September 11 by opening its session with an unprecedented moment of silent meditation — a wordless prayer, if you will. That religious note was not to last, however. Within minutes, the court proceeded to ignore, if not dishonor, the diverse religions that have provided so much strength to this country in the wake of the tragedy. It did so by announcing its refusal to hear the appeal of a Muslim woman who lost her job at Alamo Rent-A-Car because of her religious commitment to wearing a headscarf. Despite the countless interfaith prayer-services and press conferences at which politicians stood with rabbis, imams and priests, our nation’s laws do not protect Americans of faith from being forced to choose between their careers and their consciences, the court’s action seemed to say.

Unfortunately, Alamo Rent-A-Car is not alone in forcing its workers to make such unpalatable choices. During the past several years, such choices have confronted working Americans of many faiths at some of America’s leading companies — which is why now, more than ever, Americans need to codify protections for their religious freedoms.

Last year, New York’s attorney general found that Sears was rejecting qualified applicants for repairman positions because they observed the Jewish Sabbath. Earlier this year, Federal Express fired several employees for wearing long hair, despite the fact that they did so for religious reasons. In June, a Florida jury found BellSouth had fired an employee for his religious attire, a skullcap.

But this lack of religious accommodation on the job is not restricted to companies in the Fortune 500 or to the needs of religious minorities. Last year, a devout Christian lost his job with a small, Maryland-based trucking company because of his refusal to drive on Sundays. In 1991, two Catholic women lost their jobs at a Massachusetts racetrack by disputing their employer’s insistence that they work on Christmas.

How can such incidents happen in the nation founded by Pilgrims seeking religious freedom? In the nation that enshrined the free exercise of religion as the first liberty protected by its Bill of Rights? In the nation in which more sects have found sanctuary than in any other on earth? Indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was once amended by Congress to require that employers “reasonably accommodate” the religious needs of their employees, so long as doing so did not impose an “undue hardship” upon the employer. Over the years, however, federal courts — following the lead of the Supreme Court — have entirely eviscerated this protection. They have made the threshold for what constitutes an “undue hardship” so low that an employer can claim almost any inconvenience as a hardship that alleviates his obligation to accommodate the employee.

Thus, Alamo Rent-A-Car claimed that its employee uniform standards could not tolerate the Muslim headscarf; Federal Express asserted that long hair clashed with its uniforms. The Massachusetts racetrack pointed to the inconvenience of tracking shift-swaps between its Catholic employees and their co-workers, as did the Maryland trucking company. In each case, some effort, good will and tolerance could have yielded accommodation rather than litigation.

But this is America. As surely as religious liberty is a principle we cherish, we know that a principle can only be realized by backing it up with real protections, codified in law. Thus, a coalition of religiously based organizations — including the American Jewish Committee, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Sikh Center, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the Center for Muslim Women — and congressmen from both parties have united behind the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.

This measure would simply reinstate employers’ obligation to accommodate employees’ religious needs while being sensitive to the potential burdens such needs might place upon an employer. By giving legal protections to working Americans through the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, Congress and the president can demonstrate that their recent tributes to religious liberty and diversity are not just rhetoric, but evidence of the abiding values that America’s laws must promote and protect.

Mr. Diament is director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.