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10/24/97 Protection needed for religion in workplace, committee told

WASHINGTON (BP)–Employees who lost their jobs or were threatened with the loss of a job told a congressional panel recently legislation is needed to protect religious rights in the workplace.
The witnesses testified at a hearing before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee on the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. The bill, coauthored by Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass., and Sen. Dan Coats, R.-Ind., is intended to correct what supporters say is a judicial misinterpretation that has provided little protection for employees’ religious practices.
Federal civil rights legislation requires an employer to accommodate in a reasonable manner an employee’s religious observance unless it would cause an “undue hardship,” but the bill’s backers say courts have misinterpreted this to mean anything more than a minimal effort. As a result, legislation is needed to apply the same standard to religion as is now applied to other civil rights cases, they say.
Workers who told the committee they suffered discrimination because of their commitment to a religious observance included:
— John Kalwitz, an orthodox Jew who was fired by the Indiana Department of Transportation because he would not work on the Sabbath;
— Aston Beadle, a Seventh-day Adventist terminated by the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department because he refused to work on Saturday;
— Kathleen Pielech, a Catholic who lost her job at a Massachusetts dog track because she would not work on Christmas;
— Rose Hamid, a Muslim who nearly lost her job as a flight attendant because she wore a head covering.
For “many religiously observant Americans, the greatest peril to their ability to carry out their religious faiths, on a day-to-day basis, may come from employers — employers who will not make reasonable accommodation for observance of the Sabbath and other holy days,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee, in written testimony for the Oct. 21 hearing.
Foltin also is chairman of the Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace, a 29-member group supporting the bill. Among its members are the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Christian Legal Society, National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, while not a member of the coalition, told Congress in an August letter passage of the workplace bill is one of its 10 “immediate priorities.”
Will Dodson, the ERLC’s director of public policy, said, “This bill would end the kind of discrimination against religion which should not exist in any environment. Furthermore, it would go a long way toward raising the awareness of religious liberty as a preeminent value in our culture.”
Lawrence Zorber, a Washington lawyer in private practice, expressed reservations in his written testimony, including a concern the bill is too broad and would lead to increased litigation instead of increased religious liberty.
The bill, S. 1124 in the Senate, is not scheduled for a committee vote. One probably will not be held until January or early February, a committee staff member said.