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Putting workers to a cruel choice: your God or your job

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Charles C. Haynes
December 1, 2011

In hard economic times, American workers may be willing to forego pay raises and pensions to keep their jobs. Just don’t ask them to abandon their faith.


Consider the case of Abdulkadir Omar, a former security guard in Kent, Wash., who was told to shave his religiously required beard after six months on the job. Omar refused, was fired—and now is in federal court seeking damages.


Like many other religious Americans, Omar was forced to make what the Supreme Court has called a “cruel choice” between keeping his job and following his God.


In post-9/11 America, workplace conflicts involving Muslim Americans such as Omar, often focused on grooming and head scarves, tend to grab the headlines. But under the news-media radar, workers of many other faiths—Protestants, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Sikhs and others—battle daily to practice their faiths without losing their jobs.


At the top of the workplace-discrimination list are Seventh-day Adventists. Church officials estimate that every day, on average, two or three Adventists in the U.S. lose their jobs or are denied jobs because employers will not accommodate Saturday Sabbath observance.


Faith-based conflicts in the American workplace are widespread and growing. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, religious-discrimination complaints have doubled over the past decade, from 1,900 in 2000 to 3,800 in 2010.


If you think civil rights laws prevent workplace religious discrimination, think again. Federal law does require employers to provide reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs and practices, but courts have interpreted “reasonable” to mean “not much.”


Beginning in 2005, some members of Congress from both parties have tried to strengthen the law by requiring employers to accommodate practices unless doing so would involve “significant difficulty or expense.” But the Workplace Religious Freedom Act continues to languish in the hopper session after session.


The current version of WRFA is narrowly tailored to focus on the need to accommodate religious garb, grooming and sacred holidays, religious practices most frequently at issue in the workplace.


Much of the opposition to the bill comes from some in the business community who worry that more accommodation will mean higher costs and administrative burdens. WRFA proponents acknowledge that the proposed law would require more effort on the part of employers but insist that the benefits of accommodation—more committed and productive workers—far outweigh any modest cost or inconvenience.


Of course, the larger argument for religious accommodation is the argument for religious freedom. Workers who must take Saturday off from work because they believe God requires it should be treated differently from workers who want the day to go fishing or play golf.


Protecting the right of each person of faith “to follow the dictates of conscience” is at the heart of what it means to uphold religious liberty in a free society.


“Growing up in this country where the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, I was let down,” Omar said after he was fired. “What does my beard have to do with me doing my job?”


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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