By Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
For years, employees and employers have been confused over just what religious discrimination means when it comes to the workplace. Can Seventh-day Adventists or Orthodox Jews legally request time off for the Sabbath? Can a Christian place a Bible next to a software manual at his or her desk?
Yesterday President Clinton tried to clarify these questions by spelling out - for the first time ever - a set of federal guidelines for the protection of religious expression in the workplace. They would allow Bibles next to desks and time off for religious holidays.
The guidelines cover federal workers only, but the White House hopes they will be a model for the private sector. And they are seen as a symbolic effort by the president to show support for religious freedom - on the heels of a stinging setback in June by the US Supreme Court, when it struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The guidelines come as conflicts are slowly increasing in the workplace over everything from wearing the Jewish yarmulke or the Muslim hejab to inviting fellow workers to church - as the increasing religious diversity of America spreads to the job site. The number of religious-discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased from 1,192 in 1991 to 1,564 in 1996. Many thousands more cases are mediated in local courts. "Religious freedom is at the heart of what it means to be an American and at the heart of our journey to become truly one America," Mr. Clinton said in announcing the guidelines. Detailing religious protection Religious discrimination or harassment is disallowed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But unlike other categories covered in that act - race, gender, and national origin - no specific guidelines had ever been agreed to for religious expression. Under the law, employers must "reasonably accommodate" the religious observance and practice of employees. The new federal guidelines do not change that standard, but attempt to clarify it. "Federal employers shall permit personal religious expression by federal employees to the greatest extent possible, consistent with requirements of law and interests in workplace efficiency," the new rules state. In 1993, the administration spelled out nearly identical guidelines. …