November - December 2000 The Sabbath Sentinel
Religious Freedom in the Workplace
by Alan J. Reinach, J.D.
Joe Lieberman has one of the toughest jobs in
America. For the next 10 weeks, Senator Lieberman will
engage in a nonstop, 18-hour daily grind, campaigning in
the highest stakes election in the nation. Yet each
week, before sunset on Friday, Joe will take what all of
us could use-a 24-hour break-a Sabbath rest. He will
emerge from this rest revived and ready for the
challenges of a new week.
Joe is lucky. He has a boss who knew he wanted Sabbath
off, and agreed to "hire" him anyway. Thousands of
Americans are not so lucky. When they tell a prospective
employer they can't work on the Sabbath, they don't get
Thousands more lose their jobs each year when schedules
are changed to require them to work in conflict with
their faith. These problems arise in every industry,
especially those with around-the-clock cycles. They
involve people of many different religions, Jews,
Christians, Muslims, and others.
The suffering caused by such discrimination can be
immense. Nydia Gomez was fired from her housekeeping
supervisor job at a national hotel chain when, after 15
years, her schedule was changed to require Sabbath
work. When prospective employers heard why she was
fired, they shunned her.
Jeff Phillips worked in the warehouse of a multinational
paper company for 18 years. For no apparent reason, he
was put on the night shift and required to work on
Friday nights, in violation of his faith. When he
requested religious accommodation, they fired him; when
prospective employers found out why he was fired, no one
would touch him. Out of work for almost three years, at
age 47, he had to move back in with his parents.
One of the most difficult employers is the United Postal
Service. Mail carriers have lodged literally hundreds of
complaints of religious discrimination. Even though the
Postal Service has carriers who cover for those out sick
and on vacation, they refuse to use these carriers: in
other words, they refuse to give religious accommodation
to Sabbath observers.
Thousands of Americans violate their faith each week by
working on a day believed to be sacred. They bear a load
of intense guilt, assuming that they have no other
choice. From a legal standpoint, they are mostly right.
Many employers are committed to nondiscrimination, and
do provide religious accommodation. Their actions prove
that it can be done easily, and in most cases, without
the company incurring substantial costs. Yet, it seems
that this is not the route which most decide to take.
Many more employers are either indifferent or hostile to
employees' requests for religious accommodation. They
respond to such requests as an affront to their
authority, and summarily dismiss these workers. In many
such cases, they have rejected accommodation proposals
that could be implemented easily.
A coalition of faith communities, led by the American
Jewish Committee's Richard Foltin, have drafted the
Workplace Religious Freedom Act
(WRFA), now introduced in both the U. S. House of
Representatives and Senate. The bill would clarify
confusion in the current law-whether a "reasonable
accommodation" must actually remove the conflict with a
Many companies believe that removing the conflict with a
worker's faith is only "reasonable" some of the
time. This still leaves workers with a choice between
their religion and their job. The bill would clarify
that a "reasonable" accommodation must completely remove
the conflict between a worker's faith and the job
requirement; yet, the requirement is not absolute.
Under the current law, a company is excused from
accommodations that result in "undue hardship"; even
trivial costs now constitute such hardships. The new
bill would redefine "undue hardship" to mean
"significant difficulty or expense." This would insure
that accommodations are required unless the cost to the
company really is too high.
Contrary to objections from the business community, this
would actually save employers money-since it clarifies a
"gray area" that discourages speedy resolution of these
problems, which often lead to higher cost litigation. By
cutting down on the number of discrimination claims, the
reduction in litigation costs will more than offset any
marginal expenses of providing accommodation. Moreover,
companies stand to reap a windfall in productivity gains
from those appreciative employees who are now frequently
America rightly celebrates the breaking down of
barriers, and the spirit of inclusiveness symbolized by
Senator Lieberman's nomination. But this symbolic
gesture needs to be supported with concrete action. Both
parties need to act now to pass the WRFA and insure that
Americans of all faiths will not be forced to choose
between their religion and their job.
Alan Reinach is an attorney and minister who serves as
President of the Seventh-day Adventist Church State
Council for the Pacific Union Conference of
Seventh-day Adventists. His email address is:
November - December 2000 The Sabbath Sentinel