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"My great hope is that we can enter this new century and this new millennium as the most successful multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious democracy the world has ever known. We will get there through efforts like this -- men, women from all walks of life coming together to respect and celebrate our differences while uniting around the ideals that bind us together, more importantly, as one America." President Bill Clinton, 1997-AUG-14, at the introduction of the "Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace," 3

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Freedom of religion takes many forms in the workplace. For example:

bulletSikhs may feel a religious obligation to wear a turban at work.
bulletMale Muslims may wish to wear a beard.
bulletWiccans may want to work on a Christian holiday in exchange for having one of their Sabbats off work. 
bulletA Jew might want to leave work early on Friday night to attend religious services, in exchange for working overtime earlier in the week.
bulletA Christian, employed on rotating shifts, might wish to have every Sunday off work.

As in most cases of civil rights, conflicts sometimes arise between:

bulletan employee's right to practice their religion, and
bulletan employers right to conduct his/her business as they wish, and not be burdened by excess cost due to their employees' religious needs.

The balance between these two rights has shifted in the past and may change in the future:

bullet1972: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was modified to require all medium and large companies to accommodate the religious needs of their employees, except in those cases where the cost would be prohibitive. Companies with 15 or fewer employees were exempted from the law. 10
bullet1995 & 1996: Bills covering freedom of religion in the workplace were introduced to Congress. No action was taken, mostly because of time constraints. 5
bullet1977: The U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the clause of the Civil Rights Act referring to workplace religious freedom. They gutted the law, allowed widespread employer exemption, even in cases involving relatively miniscule cost or difficulty to the employer.
bulletIn 1997-JUL, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Dan Coats (R-IN) introduced a bill called the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 1997 (WRFA; S. 1124).9 A House version was introduced as H.R. 2848 by Rep. Goodling. This would require employers to accommodate their employee's religious practices unless there was "significant difficulty or expense" involved. The bill failed to be passed.
bulletIn 1997-AUG the Clinton administration's Office of Personnel Management issued guidelines which cover all civilian-branch employees of the Federal government. 7 The guidelines were prepared by a wide-ranging coalition of groups, including such diverse organizations as the People for the American Way, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Coalition. The guidelines clarify that:
bullet"Federal employees may engage in personal religious expression to the greatest extent possible, consistent with workplace efficiency and the requirements of law." 
bullet"...federal employers may not discriminate in employment on the basis of religion."
bulletAll government agencies "must reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices." 3

President Clinton sent a memorandum on these guidelines to the heads of Federal departments and agencies. He commented that the principles in the guidelines are all "but variants or applications of a single rule of neutrality and fairness -- that agencies shall treat employees with the same respect and consideration, regardless of their religious beliefs. Whether by allowing religious speech, preventing religious coercion or harassment, or making accommodations to religious practice, the federal government must act to ensure that the federal workplace is generous to followers of all religions, as well as to followers of none." 11 The Department of the Treasury published excerpts from the Guidelines with numerous examples of their application. 4

bullet1998-JAN: The WRFA was introduced in the House as H.R. 2948 by William Goodling. It was introduced in the Senate as S. 1124 by John Kerry (D-MA) and Dan Coats (R-IN). 8 It was endorsed by the Agudath Israel of America; American Jewish Committee; American Jewish Congress; Americans for Democratic Action; Anti-Defamation League; Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; Center for Jewish and Christian Values; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Christian Legal Society; Church of Scientology International; Council on Religious Freedom; General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; Guru Gobind Singh Foundation; Hadassah-WZOA; International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; National Association of Evangelicals; National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA; National Council of Jewish Women; National Jewish Coalition; National Jewish Coalition; National Jewish Democratic Council; National Sikh Center; North American Council for Muslim Women; People for the American Way; Presbyterian Church (USA), Washington Office; Rabbinical Council of America; Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Traditional Values Coalition; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; United Church of Christ Office for Church in Society; United Methodist Church General Board on Church and Society; and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.The bills did not pass.
bullet1999-SEP-29: WRFA was re-introduced into the Senate. Senator Brownback commented: "This legislation is carefully crafted and strikes an appropriate balance between religious accommodation, while ensuring that an undue burden is not forced upon American businesses." Senator Kerry hopes that the bill will be passed by the 106th congress. He notes that if the Congress votes in favor of the bill, it would simply be restoring the intent of the 1972 legislation. The senate bill, S.1668, has been referred to the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. It has a total of 5 sponsors. 

The Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace is promoting the bill. It includes 37 organizations representing various wings of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. The Coalition apparently does not have a web page.

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  1. "Religious liberty: The Workplace Religious Freedom Act," People for the American Way, at: http://www.pfaw.org/caphill/liberty.shtml#WRFA
  2. "ADL Issue Brief", Anti-Defamation League, at: http://www.adl.org/presrele/CvlRt_32/3170_32.html (bottom of essay)
  3. "Remarks by the president on religious freedom in the federal workplace," 1997-AUG-14, at: http://www.onr.navy.mil/onr/PrezRemarks.htm or http://www.fsa.usda.gov/pas/civil/religion.txt 
  4. "Legal Update," Department of the Treasury, at: http://www.ustreas.gov/fletc/leg9704.htm (Second topic)
  5. Daniel Kurtzman, "Bills [sic] calls for religious freedom in workplace," Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Online at: http://www.jewishaz.com/1997b/970808/bill.shtml 
  6. Julia Spoor, "Note, Go tell it on the mountain, but keep it out of the office: Religious harassment in the workplace," 31 Val. U. L. Rev. 971, Valparaiso University Law Review (1997-Summer)
  7. "Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace," at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/New/html/19970819-3275.html 
  8. W.F. Goodling, "Protection of religious freedom in the workplace," Remarks on the introduction of HR 2948 on 1998-JAN-27. Search: http://thomas.loc.gov 
  9. Kerry, "Workplace Religious Freedom Act," Remarks on the introduction of the bill to the Senate on 1997-JUL-31. Search: http://thomas.loc.gov  
  10. "Bill would boost protections for worker's faith practices," The Report from the Capital, Baptist Joint Committee, Vol. 54, No. 20, 1999-OCT-12.
  11. WJ Clinton, "Memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies," at: http://w3.trib.com/FACT/1st.pres.rel.work.html 
  12. Social Security SSN has a list of links to websites which discuss freedom of religion. See: http://www.socialsecurityssn.com/

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