Posted on September 30, 1999


Critical Legislation for the American Community

Today in the United States, where the First Amendment of the Constitution protects each citizen’s right to the free exercise of his or her religion, many citizens are confronted with a difficult choice – between their faith and their livelihood. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act (“WRFA”) is designed to ensure that no American is forced to make such a choice.

Prior to 1977, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required employers to reasonably accommodate the religious observances of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” upon the employer. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated this protection for religious workers by holding that if an accommodation imposed even a de minimis expense upon the employer, an accommodation was not required under the law. (TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63) WRFA seeks to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to reinstate the protection religious workers require so that they may be faithful to their religion and support their families as well.

WRFA would return the law to what Congress intended by applying similar standards for determining what would constitute an “undue hardship” to an employer as already found in other important protections for workers such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus, WRFA would define an “undue hardship” as a situation which imposes “significant difficulty or expense” upon the employer as determined by factors such as the cost of the accommodation in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer as well as the number of individual employees seeking such an accommodation. The definition of “undue hardship” has been carefully crafted to balance both the respect that religion must be afforded with the needs of employers to have reliable and productive workplaces. Thus, for example, a reasonable accommodation that would preclude the employee from fulfilling the “essential functions” of his or her job need not be provided.

A typical scenario which the passage of WRFA would address is with regard to permitting the more flexible work schedules religious employees often need. If, for example, an employee needed to leave early on Friday afternoon in order to observe the Jewish sabbath or a Christian wished to take off from work on Good Friday, and was willing to work late nights earlier in the week to ensure that all of the tasks for which he/she was responsible were completed (ensuring that there would be no impact upon the employer’s “bottom line”), WRFA would require the employer to grant such an accommodation and not insist that worker be present on Friday.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act enjoys the support of a broad coalition of religious groups including, but not limited to: American Jewish Committee, Baptist Joint Committee, Christian Legal Society, Family Research Council, General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.