Oregon Passes Workplace Religious Freedom Bill
eventh-day Adventists and other employees in Oregon will have added protections in the workplace, thanks to legislation championed by a former Baptist denominational leader.
On May 29, the Oregon House of Representatives passed the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which ensures employees of Oregon businesses will be able to practice their religion freely. The bill requires employers to provide accommodation for religious beliefs provided the accomodation does not impose an “undue hardship” on the business. The bill passed on a 38-21 vote and now moves to Governor Ted Kulongoski for his signature; the signing is slated for June 26.
House Speaker Dave Hunt (D-Clackamas County), chief sponsor of the bill, said the bill ensures a fundamental right to religious freedom for Oregonians, but also ensures that businesses will not be unduly burdened. Hunt is the youngest-ever national president of American Baptist Churches USA, which represents 5,500 churches and 1.5 million members. A spokesperson indicated Hunt has a deep interest in religious liberty issues.
The bill is closely modeled after current state law concerning the accommodation of people with physical disabilities in the workplace.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY ADVOCATE: Oregon Speaker Dave Hunt, a former national president of American Baptist Churches USA, was a key backer of that state’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act, due to be signed into law June 26. [Photo: Office of Speaker Dave Hunt]
“It is always a sensitive time when employees seek to freely exercise their religious beliefs and ask for consideration from their employer. This bill clarifies the rules so everyone knows what is expected and proper in accommodating the wearing of religious clothing and time off for religious observance,” Hunt said.
Supporting groups include the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, which is sponsored by the Northwest Pacific Union of Seventh-day Adventists; Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.
In a letter supporting the bill, Gregory Hamilton of the Northwest Religious Freedom Association, said his group had mediated more than 300 disputes in Oregon, and pointed out that claims of religious discrimination in the workplace have increased at both the Oregon state Bureau of Labor and Industries and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In another letter supporting the bill, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon wrote legislators that “SB 786 is crucial civil rights legislation that is meant to ensure that all members of society, whatever their religious belief and practices, are protected from religious discrimination in the workplace.”
Hunt said this is not an effort to place undue hardships on employers, but to make sure that all businesses know clearly what their responsibilities are when employees ask for religious accommodation.
“With the diversity of religions in Oregon and the many different ways people celebrate their faith, it makes sense to have clear guidelines for both employers and employees to follow,” Hunt said. “Our country has always valued religious freedom and this bill makes sure we can continue the broad acceptance of different religious beliefs.”
Hamilton said this bill is a beginning for his region: “With the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act now in place, over the next couple of legislative sessions the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) plans to initiate similar legislative bill proposals in each of the other Northwest states,” he stated. “What the Oregon bill accomplishes is a narrowly tailored model for the federal government to follow in its efforts to see similar protections put forward for people of faith, including religious minorities. If adopted at the federal level, it would promise to help all people of faith and employers in each state of the country.”
A federal Workplace Religious Freedom Act is still hoped for by Seventh-day Adventists, observant Christians, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and others. Its fate in the U.S. Congress is unclear, at this time, however.
-- Reported by AR staff with information from the office of Speaker Hunt.