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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 hired.

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 worker's faith.

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 demoralized.

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: ajreinach@email.msn.com .


November - December 2000 The Sabbath Sentinel