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Land: Law needed to protect workplace religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP)–A new law is needed to restore protection for the religious rights of employees, Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land said at a recent congressional hearing.

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told a House of Representatives subcommittee that the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) should be passed in order to reinstate free exercise rights undermined by court action. Land joined Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee, in testifying on behalf of a diverse coalition supporting WRFA.

WRFA, H.R. 1445 in the House and S. 677 in the Senate, would act to correct a narrow interpretation of the requirement upon employers to accommodate the religious rights of their workers, the bill’s supporters contend. Congress amended the Civil Rights Act in 1972 to require employers to accommodate their employees’ religious rights unless it would place an “undue hardship” upon the employer. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in a 1977 decision that the hardship need only be minimal, not substantial, and effectively negated the law, WRFA’s backers say.

The coalition is united in its belief that an “employee’s religious needs should be accommodated at work,” Land said, as long as they do not “adversely affect third parties,” whether the third party is the employer, a fellow employee, or a customer or client.

The coalition –- which includes evangelical Christians, Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims, mainline Protestants, Sikhs and others -– is united on “the simple principle that we will not prejudice particular faiths or practices,” Land said. “[W]e all have challenges to our religious observances, and this is truly one of those situations where we protect our own by protecting everyone.”

“The Sikh ought to have his faith-mandated requirement to wear a turban accommodated just as the Baptist who wishes to dress modestly,” he told the subcommittee. “The Adventist and Orthodox Jew ought to have their work schedule accommodated for their holy day just as the Catholic, Protestant or evangelical Christian who wishes not to work on Christmas or Good Friday. The computer scientist who is suddenly assigned to a military contract which conflicts with her faith-informed pacifist beliefs ought, ideally, to be accommodated with a reassignment just as a laboratory technician ought to be accommodated to not have to work on an embryonic stem-cell research project over her religious objections.”

America’s founders considered religious freedom to be the right to practice faith, not just believe it, Land said. “This is reflected in the historical record of the debates about the First Amendment which show that the Framers rejected a proposed First Amendment text which would have protected freedom ‘of conscience’ for a text that protects ‘free exercise,’” he said.

WRFA has met with opposition. The ACLU and National Women’s Law Center oppose the bill in its current form. Both argue the legislation could restrict the rights of women to obtain abortions by protecting the religious rights of police officers not to guard abortion clinics. The women’s center also contends it could protect a pharmacist’s right not to dispense “morning-after” pills, because he considers them abortifacients, over the woman’s right to purchase contraceptives.

The Chamber of Commerce also is against WRFA.

Camille Olson, representing the chamber, told the subcommittee the Chamber of Commerce sees no reason to revise the current situation.

The issues regarding the rights of employers and employees “have to be balanced, as opposed to a bright-line test like exists within the current draft of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would provide certain absolute resolutions of conflict in favor of the employee who has a religious practice that they want to impose on the workplace,” she said.

Rep. Mark Souder, R.-Ind., WRFA’s sponsor, decried the chamber’s position. “I am incredibly disgusted, as well as disappointed, with the chamber’s testimony,’ he told Olson, “but one thing I do appreciate is that they’ve come out of the closet after years” of trying to block the bill and prevent a hearing.

Land told the panel, “Obviously, the status quo is not working for increasing numbers of people of devout religious” belief.

Supporters of WRFA pointed to the success of a 2002 New York law that is similar to the federal legislation. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer wrote a letter to the subcommittee asserting the law has not burdened employers or inhibited civil rights.

At a news conference prior to the hearing, three Seventh-day Adventists whose religious practice has been affected shared their stories briefly.

— Miquel Hernandez, a miner from Superior, Ariz., lost his job when his schedule was changed and his employer refused to accommodate his practice of worshipping on Saturdays.

— James Alignay, a network engineer from Silver Spring, Md., left for a new job when his employer refused to grant his request not to provide support for pornographic websites.

— Deborah Fountain, an airline attendant from Southern California, was suspended from her job but restored, although she still has not been granted a permanent accommodation of her request for a Sabbath-appropriate schedule.

In addition to the ERLC and AJC, other members of the pro-WRFA coalition include the Christian Legal Society, National Association of Evangelicals, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, Baptist Joint Committee, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, National Council of Churches, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Interfaith Alliance, Americans for Democratic Action and Islamic Supreme Council of America.

The hearing was held Nov. 10 before the Employer-Employee Relations Subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.