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United States: Adventist representative testifies before Congressional hearing

Standish vouches for broadened workplace religious freedoms; New York state law at anti-discrimination forefront

February 14, 2008 Washington, D.C., United States

Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN

Adventist Church Legislative Affairs representative James D. Standish, Esq. joined five other witnesses on February 12 for a U.S. Congressional hearing on a bill meant to broaden workplace religious freedoms. [photo: David E. Hittle]

American workers can unswervingly follow their consciences and fulfill job requirements under newly proposed workplace freedom legislation, said James D. Standish, Esq., Legislative Affairs representative for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, during testimony before a United States Congressional hearing.

"Enough American workers have been humiliated and marginalized for no crime other than remaining faithful to their understanding of God's requirements," said Standish, who joined five other witnesses for the February 12 hearing on the reintroduced Workplace Religious Freedom Act. "Our national values and our common humanity dictate that we provide the modest, commonsense protection [under WRFA], and that we delay no longer."

WRFA-like provisions, adopted by the state of New York in 2002, have led to a "dramatic" drop in workplace religious discrimination claims, which meanwhile spiked 83 percent nationwide between 1993 and 2006, Standish said.

Current workplace religious discrimination protections under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act amended in 1972 require employers to provide "reasonable accommodation" of an employee's religious beliefs unless such leeway inflicts "undue hardship" on the employer or other employees. Accommodation typically falls under two categories: the keeping of holy days, such as the Sabbath, and the wearing of religious garb, including the yarmulke, turban and

If passed nationally, WRFA would cork legislative gaps that allow courts to interpret those key phrases however narrowly or broadly they see fit, Standish told attending members of the U.S. House of Representatives' subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. Unambiguous standards of protection under WRFA are crucial to safeguard workers from "arbitrary" firings or job denials, he added.

New Jersey speech pathologist and observant Jew Judy Goldstein testified that she was denied a job at a public high school based on an employer's refusal to accommodate her Sabbath observance.

Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, addressed a related concern. Al-Suwaij, who fled her native Iraq after participating in a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, was denied a job in the U.S. when she refused to remove her
hijab during work hours.

Both Goldstein and Al-Suwaij testified that each would have been employed under WRFA provisions.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Robert Andrews (Democrat-New Jersey) asked the panel whether broadened employee rights under WRFA would increase the potential for unreasonable court cases. Other subcommittee members questioned whether courts should rule in favor of employees who refuse to perform the "essential functions" of their jobs -- for example, a Muslim truck driver who refuses to deliver alcoholic beverages.

"WRFA does not give employees a 'blank check' to demand any accommodation in the name of religion and receive it," said panelist Richard T. Foltin, Legislative Director and Counsel for the American Jewish Committee's Office of Government and International Affairs.

Standish agreed. No documented reason exists to suggest WRFA will justify "sham" religious claims, he said.

Panelist Helen Norton, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Department of Justice during the Bill Clinton Administration, said WRFA might wrongly be interpreted to protect a worker who refuses to fill a prescription for contraceptives because birth control conflicts with his religious beliefs.

Michael J. Gray, partner at the international law firm Jones Day, expressed similar concerns. He said WRFA might skew the current "balance" between "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship" by accommodating "reverse religious discrimination." Under WRFA, he said, the rights of Ku Klux Klan members or gay antagonists to create "hostile work environments" might be protected.

The law is already adequate, Gray added, citing a January 18 ruling largely in favor of
Adventist UPS driver Todd Sturgill.

Foltin called such concerns "fanciful swatting at phantoms" sidetracking Congress from the issue at hand: "the very real need to remedy the harm faced by religiously observant employees every day."

WRFA's broad, bi-partisan support -- the bill is co-written by Representatives Carolyn McCarthy (Democrat-New York) and Mark E. Souder (Republican-Indiana) -- is evidence of its significance, Standish said. He later told ANN that he hoped the day's "positive negotiations" would lead to legislation that "actually gets passed." 

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