Nov 09, 2005

A proposed federal law intended to protect workers’ religious rights needs to be revised so that it does not end up infringing on the rights of others, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2005 requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees’ religious needs unless they cause a “significant difficulty or expense” to the employers. While intended primarily to cover things like requests for time off for religious observances, the act’s language, Americans United says, is dangerous and could lead to anti-civil and personal rights abuses.

As an example, Americans United pointed to a spate of recent news stories involving pharmacists who refuse to fill certain prescriptions because doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

AU also fears the measure could be used by employees to trump state and local civil rights laws that protect people from discrimination on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation, as well as employers’ voluntary civil rights and anti-harassment policies.

“Religious freedom in the workplace should not be interpreted to mean stepping on the rights of others,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Congress should not pass a law so broad that it becomes a weapon that can be used against others.”

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is scheduled to hold a hearing Nov. 10 on the bill, H.R. 1445.

In a letter sent to House members today, Lynn wrote, “Americans United strongly believes that no employee should gain a right under Title VII, of all laws, to discriminate against or harass other employees or third parties at American jobsites, even if the employee wanting the accommodation is motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs.  Further, it compromised by a religiously motivated employee requesting an accommodation that could pose such threats at a worksite.”

Lynn noted that Religious Right groups have been unsuccessfully litigating under Title VII’s existing provisions to gain legal rights to proselytize and to undermine compliance with civil rights laws and policies. 

These groups will do the same with a powerful new tool if the Workplace Religious Freedom Act becomes law, AU says.

Americans United says the spirit motivating the bill is commendable and recommended that its sponsors revise it to resolve its defects.

“Religious freedom in the workplace can be protected in a way that does not threaten anyone else’s rights,” Lynn said. “I urge Congress to make that clear in this legislation.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.