Your God – or your job. Believe it or not, that’s the cruel choice confronting a growing number of workers in the United States.
Although religious discrimination in the workplace has been a significant problem for years, it has gotten substantially worse since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) receives hundreds of complaints from Muslim Americans – and people mistaken for Muslims – alleging hostility on the job.
EEOC statistics may only be the tip of the iceberg. Many Muslims – especially recent immigrants – are reluctant to file claims. “My boss told me to remove my head covering,” a young Muslim woman told me last week, “or be fired. So I quit my job.” Most incidents like this go unreported.
Muslims in post-Sept. 11 America may be the most frequent target for unfair treatment, but they aren’t alone. Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and others all experience religious discrimination in the workplace. Even before the terrorist attacks, the problem had gone from bad to worse. From 1992 to 2000, claims to the EEOC concerning workplace religious discrimination rose by 28%.
Sikh Americans, for example, often bump up against work-related grooming and head-covering regulations. Earlier this year, a Sikh police officer in New York sued the city after he was fired for refusing to shave his beard or remove his turban – both required by his faith.
Or consider the Seventh-day Adventists, whose Sabbath is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. According to the Adventist News Network, each year the Adventist Church receives as many as 1,000 requests for legal help from members fired or disciplined – usually because they can’t work on Saturday.
Note that religious liberty on the job isn’t just for the religious. A number of years ago, an atheist worker fought for (and eventually won) the right to be excused from worship services that his company required all employees to attend.
Lawsuits and complaints about religious discrimination in the workplace ought to be rare in a nation committed to religious liberty under the First Amendment. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended in 1972), employers are supposed to “reasonably accommodate” workers’ religious beliefs and practices in the workplace – unless doing so would cause “undue hardship.”
Unfortunately, a 1977 Supreme Court decision in Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison took the teeth out of the law, ruling that even a minimal expense can be considered an “undue hardship.” Since that decision, employers can (and do) refuse religious accommodation for the flimsiest of reasons.
Religious groups haven’t given up. Every year for the past five years, a broad coalition of more than 40 religious and civil rights groups have pushed Congress to pass the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA). It was introduced in the Senate yet again last spring by Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and John Kerry, D-Mass.
What would WRFA do? It would clearly define “undue hardship” to mean more than the minimal standard set by the Supreme Court. The new standard would require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation – unless doing so would involve “significant difficulty or expense.”
Critics (mostly business groups) warn that passage of WRFA will burden business owners with higher costs and complicated schedules – and even compromise safety. None of these objections are well-founded. Allowing employees to observe holy days may require more flexibility, but they’ll still have to make up the hours on other days. And nothing in WRFA would change safety-related garb and grooming regulations.
WRFA would put an end to arbitrary and unfair refusals to accommodate sincere religious beliefs and practices. Religious requests for accommodation aren’t based on personal preferences in dress or on a desire to take time off from work. These are claims of conscience – claims based on what the individual believes faith requires.
Will protecting liberty of conscience mean a little more work for employers? Yes. But upholding basic freedoms is what defines (or should define) our nation.
It’s time for Congress to finally pass the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. As Sen. Kerry puts it, the issue is simple: “No worker should have to choose between keeping a job and keeping faith with their cherished religious beliefs.”