New U.S. religious freedom bill would define undue hardship

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WASHINGTON — Two senators have unveiled a bill to prevent religious discrimination in the workplace by forcing employers to accommodate their employees' religious needs.

The bill, known as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, has won strong backing from just about every leading Jewish group.

Its proponents, including sponsors Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), hope to convene hearings and make a concerted push for the measure after Congress returns from its August recess.

Supporters are taking pains to distinguish it from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 1993 legislation that was recently struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act is more narrowly focused on religious freedom on the job.

"For many religiously observant Americans, the greatest peril to their ability to carry out their religious faiths on a day-to-day basis may come from employers," said Richard Foltin, chairman of a broad coalition of religious and civil liberties groups supporting the legislation.

Current law requires employers to "reasonably accommodate" the needs of religious employees unless it causes the employer "undue hardship." The law, however, does not define undue hardship.

The courts have interpreted undue hardship broadly, resulting in several rulings giving employers a high degree of latitude in deciding whether to accommodate the religious practices of their employees.

The proposed new standard, based on similar language in the federal law protecting the handicapped against job discrimination, would require employers to prove a "significant difficulty or expense" if they decided not to accommodate a worker's religious needs.

"Though we know that only a minority of employers refuse to make reasonable accommodations for employees to observe the Sabbath or other holy days, the fact of the matter is that no worker in America should be forced to choose between a job and violating deeply held religious beliefs," Coats said in a statement.

The new bill is a modified version of similar legislation Kerry introduced at the beginning of the current 105th Congress. Other workplace discrimination bills were introduced in the two previous congresses, but no action was taken, mostly because of time constraints.

A companion bill, introduced in the House in January by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), is still pending.