New guidelines codify U.S. workers religious freedom

"There is a need to recognize rights to free religious practice in the workplace and to address religious harassment; these guidelines do that," said Marc Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress who helped write the guidelines.

While most of the rights and protections are currently on the books, the guidelines, Stern said, serve as a "reiteration and lending of presidential weight to the duty of accommodating religious practice in the federal workplace."

"Sometimes," he added, "supervisors don't pay adequate regard to the statutory requirements."

Advocates of religious freedom hope the new federal guidelines can serve as a model for private employers.

The introduction of the guidelines comes as a broad coalition of religious and civil liberties groups have begun to rally around legislation known as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.

The bill, aimed at preventing religious discrimination in the private workplace by forcing employers to accommodate employees' religious needs, has 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.

The administration's action also comes about two months after the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a law that made it harder for government to interfere with the free practice of religion.

While most of the protections afforded under RFRA remain valid at the federal level, the new guidelines are intended to set out parameters for religious practice in clear, non-legalistic terms.

"This was an attempt to have something in a personnel manual that people could look at for answers to commonly asked questions," Stern said.

The AJCongress worked to develop the guidelines in conjunction with several religious and civil liberties groups, including the Christian Legal Society and People for the American Way.

A draft of the guidelines obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency states, "Federal employers shall permit personal religious expression by federal employees to the greatest extent possible, consistent with requirements of law and interests in workplace efficiency.

"Federal employers shall not discriminate against employees on the basis of religion, require religious participation or nonparticipation as a condition of employment or permit religious harassment."

The guidelines deal with religious expression in private work areas, religious discussions among employees and religious expression in work areas accessible to the public. They also lay out standards for accommodating religious practice, such as midafternoon Jewish or Muslim prayers.