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Congress considers workplace freedom bill - again


WASHINGTON — Congress is again considering a bill to protect religious expression in the workplace, but the bill, which has been bandied about for a decade or more, continues to draw steep opposition from business interests.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act would require employers to be more accommodating of employees who wish to wear religious headgear, for example, or take time off for holy day observances.

The bill has broad bipartisan support and backing from an unusually large swath of religious groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, Orthodox Jews, Catholic bishops, the Islamic Supreme Council of North America, and the Church of Scientology.

But it has also attracted opposition from business groups, like the HR Policy Association, which represents corporate human resources departments, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Both are concerned that one employee’s religious expression may unfairly impact co-workers or customers.

Many corporations maintain that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already protects employee rights, and say the bill would confuse an already complicated set of rules, said Michael Gray, an attorney for HR Policy.

“The law goes too far in demanding that companies provide accommodation for one employee while risking unfairly burdening the other employees in the process,” Gray testified at a Feb. 12 House committee hearing.

The debate centers around what steps an employer must take before employees’ requests become an “undue hardship” for managers. The proposed bill says employers must accommodate employees unless it means a “significant difficulty or expense.”

Some opponents are also concerned that a redefinition might affect the rights of third parties – other employees who would have to cover for fellow workers, for example