Advenists Support Bill to Protect People
of Faith in the American Workplace
BY SANDRA BLACKMER, Adventist Review news editor
mericans should not have to check their right to freedom of conscience at the door of their workplaces, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Conventions Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission during a press conference in the U.S. capitol. Americans must have the right to freedom of conscience to believe as we choose and to act in conformity with those beliefs.
More than 50 employees of the Adventist Churchs world headquarters converged on Capitol Hill on November 10 to support Land and other church and government representatives by attending a hearing endorsing a bill to restore the original congressional intent of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA). James Standish, director of legislative affairs for the Adventist Church and one of the primary movers behind the bill, coordinated the pre-hearing press conference and was also present for the hearing, held before the Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations.
There is a lot of talk about the Ten Commandments in America these days, Standish told the Adventist Review, but we are finding an increase in disregard for the rights of those Americans who actually obey those commandments. According to Standish, religious liberty leaders of the Adventist Church are reporting a significant increase in the number of members requesting help because of employers refusing to accommodate their Saturday Sabbath observance. Standish cited a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report that indicates an 82 percent increase in the number of religious discrimination claims between 1993 and 2003. Adventists are not the only ones experiencing intolerances in the workplace, he added.
During the past few decades, courts have interpreted current law in a way that makes it easy for employers to avoid taking the steps necessary to accommodate the religious practices of their employees. The WRFA bill is designed to restore the original intent of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers with more than 15 workers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of employees when doing so does not impose undue hardship, or significant cost or inconvenience, upon the employer.
|STATING THE CASE: Rajbir Datta of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (center) spoke in defense of the Workplace Religion Freedom Act at a pre-hearing press conference on Capitol Hill. The press conference was coordinated by GC director of legislative affairs James Standish (standing/left).
While most employers respect the religious diversity of the workforce, an increasing number are taking advantage of the weak state of the law and refusing to accommodate believers even when they easily could do so, says Standish. WRFA will provide an incentive for employers to sit down with their employees and propose solutions that work for everyone.
Three Adventists who lost their jobs because of faith-related workplace issues were also on hand to witness to the problems they encountered. Deborah Fountain from California lost her job with a major airline company because of her refusal to work on Sabbath. She was later reinstated, however, when the airline agreed to offer her an accommodating schedule. James Alignay from Maryland was forced to leave his job with an Internet development company when he was assigned to work on a project involving a commercial pornographic Web site. Alignay is now an employee of a different company. And Miguel Hernandez, who worked for 13 years for a large mining company in Arizona, was dismissed from his job when new management took over and refused to continue accommodating his Saturday Sabbath observance. Although Hernandez has since found a new job, he is earning about half of his former income.
During the hearing, chaired by Congressman Sam Johnson, those testifying on behalf of the WRFA bill emphasized not only the need to implement workplace religious freedoms in our diverse and pluralistic society but also that the bill does not give employees a blank check to demand any accommodation, stressing what they called a balanced perspective. For instance, a tea-totaler should not apply to work at a bar, said Congressman Mark Souder. Faith issues regarding dress code and taking time off work for holy days, however, when not affecting productivity or standard practices of an organization, were cited as accommodations that would not cause undue hardship.
Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who represents the Fourth Congressional District of New York, described the bill as pro-business, pro-faith, and pro-family. She added that employees should not have to choose between their religion and their career.
The hearing went very well, commented Standish. On balance, we clearly prevailed on the substance.
Also calling the hearing a big step in the right direction, Standish added that if the committee votes to approve the bill, the next step will be to get a vote in the House as a whole. [And] there is a similar process going on in the Senate. We are fortunate to have excellent sponsors in both chambers.
The nearly 50 organizations supporting the WRFA include the American Jewish Committee, the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Council for Muslim Women, and the United Methodist Church. Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee and Standish co-chair the coalition supporting WRFA.
To learn more about the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, go to www.religiousliberty.info.