House Panel Hears Adventist,
Others on Sabbath Protection
BY MARK A. KELLNER, News Editor, Adventist Review
n a 90-minute portion of a hearing on workplace protection, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee heard an unmistakable message from a Seventh-day Adventist representative: the future of religious liberty in the workplace is in lawmakers' hands, and that legislation is needed to protect the rights of Sabbathkeepers and other religiously observant workers.
“These are my daughters,” James Standish, legislative affairs director in the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, told the February 12 Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee hearing, holding aloft an enlarged photo of his children. “If my daughters grow up and they want to follow the faith of their mother, their two grandmothers, and their four great grandmothers, how are they going to be treated in the workplace? Are they going to be marginalized? Are they going to be harassed? Are they going to be fired when they could easily be accommodated? … The answer to that question is largely in your hands.”
Advancing the Cause
Both Representative Rob Andrews (D-NJ), chair of the subcommittee, and Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), a member of the panel and an original cosponsor of legislation aimed at solving the dilemma, told Adventist Review the measure has a good chance of advancing this year.
In comments opening the hearing, Andrews noted, “Although Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1972 to require employers, in cases of religious discrimination, to provide a reasonable accommodation for employees’ religious beliefs, individuals continue to get fired, demoted, or not hired by an employer due to their religious affiliation without recourse.”
Asked whether any or all of the leading 2008 U.S. presidential candidates could sign the bill, Andrews told Adventist Review “I’d like to think President Bush could sign this bill, or any of the … candidates. It’s a constitutional issue, not a political one.”
In comments prepared for the hearing, McCarthy explained, “I felt the need to get involved… in favor of this legislation because I have heard of many individuals who are forced to choose between their job and their religion. Nowadays we have a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week work environment that clashes with religious observances. … Asking a person to leave their religion at their door is impossible and something they should not be asked to do.”
In his written testimony, Standish called for passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, first introduced in the 109th Congress of the United States. The bill has had numerous cosponsors in the House and Senate, but has yet to advance out of either chamber’s responsible committees.
“Enough American workers have been humiliated and marginalized for no crime other than remaining faithful to their understanding of God’s requirements,” Standish said in his written testimony. “It is vital that Congress address this very real, well-documented problem. Americans from all religious faiths need protection. WRFA provides a modest level of protection to ensure that American workers are no longer arbitrarily forced to choose between their faith and their livelihood.”
More than 40 Seventh-day Adventists from the Washington, D.C., area attended the hearing, many sporting bright red, white, and blue buttons reading “WRFA Now!” A letter-writing campaign organized by the North American Religious Liberty Association generated close to 40,000 letters and e-mails to members of Congress in advance of the hearing.
Faith and Work
The choice between faith and work continues to confront Seventh-day Adventist Christians and others. In January, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling and said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority did not prove that asking other bus drivers to substitute shifts with David Marquez, an Adventist who couldn’t work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, would create an “undue hardship” for the public transit agency. Marquez, who since found other employment, won $50,000 in damages and an offer of the MBTA position. The court also ordered the agency to pay Marquez’s legal fees. In another January 2008 case, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling that a Seventh-day Adventist worker was discriminated against for not working on Sabbath. The eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a former driver for United Parcel Service (UPS), Todd Sturgill of Springdale, Arkansas, will keep his award of nearly US$104,000 in lost wages and court fees from an earlier district court ruling and will get his job back.
“The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that claims involving religious discrimination in the workplace increased 83 percent between 1993 and 2006,” Standish told lawmakers. “In contrast, racial discrimination claims declined by 8 percent during the same period, and other major categories of claims have held roughly steady or declined.”
One person who found a conflict between her faith and her career was Judy Goldstein, an Orthodox Jewish woman from New Jersey. Seeking to put her master’s degree in speech and language pathology to use, she applied for, and was offered, a job working with elementary school students near her home. The offer was withdrawn when she asked for a Sabbath accommodation during winter months when the sun sets early on Fridays: “The bottom line is that, in the end, I was not hired because of my religious observance–and that is wrong,” she told the lawmakers.
Not everyone who testified at the hearing supported WRFA. Attorney Michael J. Gray, representing the HR Policy Association, which he said was a group of “more than 250 of the U.S.’s largest employers,” said the bill would hurt, and not heal.
“WRFA will elevate the rights of employees seeking to avoid a company policy or practice based upon his or her religion over other employees and their beliefs,” Gray said. “Indeed, the law goes too far in demanding that companies provide accommodation, including financial support, for one employee while risking unfairly burdening other employees in the process. … Ultimately, WRFA leaves employers, and their employees, with more questions than answers.”
While Gray asserted that employers do accommodate many workers’ religious needs, Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, disagreed. In the years since a 1975 Supreme Court decision against a Sabbatarian’s request for accommodation, Foltin said, the record has been clear: religious employees often get less than what they asked for.
“It would be an overstatement to say that employees seeking a reasonable accommodation of their religious practices never prevail in court, to say nothing of the many whose cases we never hear about because they and their employers work out an accommodation amicably. But a brief overview [of litigation since 1977] demonstrates that for the most part, to borrow the title of one law review article on the subject, ‘heaven can wait,’” Foltin said.
Foltin also addressed business critics of WRFA who suggested that spurious claims for religious accommodation would skyrocket under the measure.
“Historical precedent indicates that bogus claims are much more prominent in the minds of WRFA opponents than in reality,” Foltin said. “New York State has had a holy-day accommodation law for many years, yet there is no record of people bringing cases for failure to honor their ‘Church of the Super Bowl’ or ‘Mosque of the Long Weekend.’ For that matter, there has been no epidemic of these fanciful claims under existing federal religious accommodation law.”
McCarthy, after hearing both sides on the issue, cited her recent work in getting a firearms bill passed and signed into law, something she did by working with the National Rifle Association. Such cooperation among those with opposing views, she suggested, could be employed to make WRFA a reality.
“We’re not that far apart,” McCarthy told the witnesses. “The committee will continue to work on this.”
Zainab Al-Zuwaij, a woman who was persecuted in her native Basra, Iraq, by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, offered some of the most poignant testimony of the hearing.
“As someone who grew up under hard repression and religious intolerance, I recognize how precious American freedoms are,” she said. “By coming together to promote religious diversity here in the U.S., we will offer a shining example to countries and societies around the world of how people of diverse religious outlooks can work together to advance a tolerant and free society.”
Many steps remain before WRFA can become law. It will have to be passed by the parent Committee on Education and Labor, then by the full House. Similar action in the senate, subcommittee, committee, and a full senate vote would precede the bill being sent to the president for his signature.
Additional information on WRFA’s progress and how readers can get involved is available online at www.religiousliberty.info/.