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Sunday, July 11, 2004

 Discrimination is never right, even against nonbelievers

As a thought experiment, let's assume you are Christian. How would you feel if your house was burning and the firefighters, who are Muslim, refuse to extinguish the blaze because they objected to your religion? If that weren't bad enough, how would you like it if you brought suit against the fire department and, to your amazement, discovered that the firefighters' lack of response was completely legal?

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act (S. 893), introduced in the Senate by Senator Santorum (R-PA) with bipartisan support, is now being pushed toward a vote. The bill would legally sanction discrimination and place the rights of some over the rights of others.

By altering Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the bill requires that employers show deference for the religious needs of their workers, unless it would result in "significant difficulty or expense." The bill's broad language places both Humanists and people of minority faiths at risk of being subjected to proselytizing from the dominant religious groups in the workplace. Rather than protecting individual rights and freedoms, the bill egregiously allows some people to force their ideas on others. The bill also seriously jeopardizes the wellbeing of American citizens. The broad language of the bill compromises health and safety by allowing healthcare workers to refuse to provide information and services related to family planning and HIV/AIDS treatment. Under the bill, police officers could also refuse to protect buildings if they had a moral objection to the tenant's activities--putting people like abortion clinic workers at risk.

Over the past 25 years, employees have brought an array of claims for employers to accommodate religious practices that would have resulted in harm to critical personal or civil rights. If WRFA had been law, the following rejected religious accommodation claims could have been decided differently:
  • Police officer’s request to refuse to protect an abortion clinic,
  • Another police officer’s request to abstain from arresting protestors blocking a clinic entrance,
  • Social worker’s decision to use Bible readings, prayer, and the "casting out of demons" with inmates in a county prison, instead of providing the county’s required secular mental health counseling,
  • State-employed visiting nurse’s decision to tell an AIDS patient and his partner that God "doesn’t like the homosexual lifestyle" and that they needed to pray for salvation,
  • Delivery room nurse’s refusal to scrub for an emergency inducement of labor and an emergency caesarian section delivery on women who were in danger of bleeding to death,
  • Two different male truck drivers and a male emergency medical technician request to avoid overnight work shifts with women because they could not sleep in the same quarters with women,
  • Employee assistance counselor’s request to refuse to counsel unmarried or gay or lesbian employees on relationship issues,
  • Hotel worker’s decision to spray a swastika on a mirror as a religious "good luck" symbol,
  • Private sector employee’s request to uncover and display a KKK tattoo of a hooded figure standing in front of a burning cross,
  • State-employed sign language interpreter’s request to proselytize and pray aloud for her assigned deaf mental health patients, and
  • Retail employee’s request to begin most statements on the job with "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth."

These examples were all actual cases brought into federal court by employees claiming that their employers refused to provide a reasonable accommodation of their religious beliefs. Applying the existing Title VII reasonable accommodation standard, the courts rejected all of these claims. Congress has no assurance that courts would continue to reject all of these types of claims if WRFA becomes law.

The harm that WRFA could cause is completely avoidable. Congress can, and should, pass legislation tightly focused on strengthening the federal requirements imposed on employers to accommodate workplace scheduling changes for the observation of religious holidays and the wearing of religious clothing or a beard or hairstyle. These two areas of religious accommodation account for nearly three-fourths of all of the religious accommodation claims rejected by federal courts in published opinions during the past quarter-century. A narrowly tailored bill could address these problems for religious minorities without any of the harms that WRFA could cause.

It is important that Humanist voices are heard at this critical juncture. Please contact your Senators and encourage them to oppose the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) for the aforementioned reasons. You can reach them by calling the Senate switchboard at 202.224.3121. The Senate website also lists the direct office lines and email addresses for every Senator.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be fair, the case with the "swastika" was probably a misunderstanding. If the person was a practicing Hindu, they might have believed the swastika (which was taken by Hitler and perverted) was a holy symbol much like the Christian cross. You can tell the difference because most "good" swastikas sit like a square, while the Nazi swastikas sit at a 45 degree angle.


I'm not trying to excuse the individual for spraypainting a symbol on a wall, it would be the same to me if someone did picture of the Virgin Mary or Zeus or something.

8:11 PM  

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