Legislation boosts faith in workplace

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling for legislation that would give employees who hold strong religious beliefs more rights in the workplace.

"Of all the freedoms of the First Amendment, the most important, I believe, is the freedom of religion," said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. "The right to believe what you want to believe."

"We have been reminded since September 11, that the United States is the freest, the most tolerant the most religious country on the face of the Earth," said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation. "Sadly, there is a gap."

The civil rights law of 1964 required employers to reasonably accommodate the religious observances of their employees, unless doing so would impose an "undue hardship" upon the employer.

But a 1977 Supremae Court ruling interpreted that to mean employers have a low level of responsibility when it comes to accommodating their workers' religious observances. Supporters of the Santorum-Kerry bill say the high court's ruling essentially means an employer does not have to accommodate an employee's religious observances if doing so would cost the employer even a slight amount of money or inconvenience.

The bill would change this by requiring employers with more than 15 workers to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious practices or observances unless they place a substantial cost or inconvenience on the employer.

"No one is here to say anyone can do anything in the workplace," Mr. Santorum said. "What we're saying is we need to restore balance."

Supporters of the measure say the setup has made it difficult for employees of faith to fight unfair treatment. They cite as examples: a Massachusetts racetrack firing devout Catholics who declined to work on Christmas; Sears refusing to hire Sabbath-observing Jews for jobs as appliance repairmen; Alamo Rent-A-Car firing a Muslim woman who wished to wear a head scarf; and FedEx prohibiting Rastafarian workers from having long hair.

Prabhjot S. Kohli, a member of the Sikh religion, fought a court battle for years after he was refused a management position with Domino's Pizza Inc. in 1988 because he would not shave his beard for religious reasons. The case was settled in 1999 — he was given $5,000 for attorney's fees, and Domino's agreed to change its appearance standards.

"This is the depth of my religious conviction," he said. "I cannot shave just for the whims of some person."

Mr. Kerry said there is momentum behind the bill this year because organized labor has dropped its objections to it and because of a renewed sensitivity to religious tolerance in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"Given the new dynamic, we should be able to find a place for this on the agenda," Mr. Kerry said.

The bill must go through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is headed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. A Kennedy aide said the bill is not on the radar screen right now.

A companion House bill has not yet been introduced.