The mainstream protestant Seventh-day Adventist Church last week joined with other U.S. faith groups to advocate for the rights of American workers to honour their faith and remain employed.
At a March 17 news conference in the United States Capitol building, James Standish of the Seventh-day Adventist Church joined U.S. Senators Rick Santorum and John F. Kerry, Representatives Mark Souder, Carolyn McCarthy and Bobby Jindal, and a broad coalition of faith leaders to call for the passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA).
"Four decades ago, the U.S. Congress passed a law with the promise that Americans would no longer arbitrarily be forced to choose between their faith and their jobs. Tragically, the courts interpreted the law so narrowly that today that promise remains unfulfilled," Standish, assistant director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department of the Adventist world church, said.
"In fact, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claims involving religious discrimination in the American workplace rose a staggering 82 percent between 1993 and 2003. Passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act will ensure that, after all these years, people of faith will finally enjoy the protection first promised so long ago," he added.
Senators Kerry and Santorum echoed this view. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and 2004 presidential candidate, said, "No American should ever have to choose between keeping a job and keeping faith with their cherished religious beliefs and [traditions]." Santorum, a Pennsylvanian who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, added, "As we see the struggle for freedom around the world, we too have to be concerned with those whose religious freedoms are not respected here."
WRFA would strengthen legal protection for people of faith in the workplace. While current United States law requires employers to accommodate the religious faith of their employees, there is widespread agreement that the current provisions are too weak to provide meaningful protection. WRFA is designed to remedy this imbalance in the law by providing protection for a wide variety of religious practices, including wearing religiously mandated clothing and hairstyles, and protecting the right of employees to not work on holy days.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has long been involved in the struggle for religious liberty in the United States and elsewhere. Originally beginning its public affairs work to combat a proposed 1888 bill mandating a national day of rest on Sunday, the church has expanded its work to include campaigns in the United States and elsewhere for freedom of conscience.
"There are three reasons Seventh-day Adventists should care about the Workplace Religious Freedom Act," stated Standish. "First, if you care about our young people, you'll care about this bill because more and more employers are pressuring our youth to work on Sabbaths. Secondly, if you care about evangelism, you'll care about this bill because the first challenge that many new converts face is an employer who is unwilling to take reasonable steps to accommodate the convert's new fidelity to God's law. Finally, if you care about religious liberty, you'll care about this bill because it is essential to ensuring people of faith across the spectrum are treated with the dignity and respect our fundamental values require."
Congressional support for the bill has been stunted in recent years by concerns over the imposition of presumed hardships on employers, who claim that Saturday and Sunday work -- often the busiest days for retail establishments -- is essential.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York, noted that when she was a nurse, prior to her political career, she was able to "trade off" work schedules with non-observant colleagues on holy days, but that workers aren't always able to do this. "This legislation will strike a balance between religious freedoms, while not placing a hardship on the employer," she said.
Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, said that as a veteran of the retail furniture business, he believes accommodations can be found in even the most difficult situations.
Despite opposition from some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Human Rights Campaign, congressional sponsors expressed hope that the legislation will, as Kerry said, pass "overwhelmingly if not unanimously."
Standish said that those interested in supporting the passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act can visit www.religiousliberty.info [Editor: Mark A. Kellner for ANN/APD]