Does Religion Belong in the Workplace?

Insight on the News, October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Does Religion Belong in the Workplace?


Byline: John Elvin, INSIGHT

Does Religion Belong in the Workplace?

Religious discrimination in the workplace remains a serious problem, according to Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. In an essay calling for passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), Haynes says the problem has increased dramatically since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Though Muslims are most often the targets, "Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and others experience religious discrimination in the workplace."

In a land noted for religious liberty, it seems strange that cases of religious discrimination are fairly common. From 1992 to 2000, claims of workplace intolerance on religious grounds presented to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission climbed 28 percent. The problem, the scholar suggests, is a 1977 Supreme Court decision addressing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended in 1972). The act states that employers must "reasonably accommodate" the religious beliefs and practices of their employees. The court said that if that accommodation requires even minimal expense, it can be considered an "undue hardship" on the employer. That loophole has given the bosses considerable power over religious expression by workers. (True, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but apparently that's not good enough for the Supreme Court).

In one recent case, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that a librarian was fired illegally for wearing a cross pendant even though an organizational dress code prohibits "religious, political or potentially offensive decoration." Atheists can be targets, too, Haynes notes, citing the case of a worker some years ago who battled successfully for the right to be excused from religious services that his company required of all employees.

WRFA, which has been introduced each year during the last five years, would end arbitrary and unfair refusal to tolerate religious expression in the workplace. The act has opposition, mainly from business groups viewing it as burdensome; it would, for instance, allow those whose day of worship is Saturday to take that day off. The proposed law accommodates personal preferences in dress such as Sikh head garb, but it doesn't go against any safety-related laws. It provides employers a way out if accommodations would involve significant difficulty or expense.

Haynes quotes one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), as saying, "No worker should have to choose between keeping a job and keeping faith with their cherished religious beliefs."

Irate Ranchers Howl at Wolf Reintroduction

Wolves get a bad rap in legend and myth, gobbling up grandmas and generally fitting a profile of the animal kingdom's version of a heartless terrorist. Ranchers will tell you that the tales of wolf attacks on livestock are no myth or legend but a significant economic fact. Of course, to hear those who hold predators in the highest regard tell it, the noble wolf is sort of like nature's vacuum cleaner, simply culling the sick and weak from among herds of deer, elk and the like.

The problem with that image is that wolves aren't particular about whether the critter that makes their next meal is wild or domestic. Cows and sheep are just as delectable to the wolf palate as deer and elk. Because of their attacks on livestock, wolves have been all but exterminated in many ranching states where they once roamed in great numbers.

Gray wolves became so scarce that they were listed as an endangered species some 30 years ago. Under federal reintroduction programs, they were imported from Canada and have built back up to some 44 packs in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, as well as Montana and Idaho, according to a report in the Denver Post. The recovery program has been so successful that the Bush administration has moved gray wolves out of "endangered" status and into the "threatened" category.

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