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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions S. 893

Location: Washington, DC

S. 893. A bill to amend title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to establish provisions with respect to religious accommodation in employment, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Mr. KERRY. Madam President, I am extremely pleased to join with my colleague Senator Santorum today to introduce the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2003. Senators ENSIGN, MIKULSKI, SMITH, MURRAY, HATCH, LIEBERMAN, BROWNBACK, and CORZINE have all joined us as original cosponsors of this important legislation.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act would protect workers from on-the-job discrimination related to religious beliefs and practices. It represents a milestone in the protection of the religious liberties of all workers.
In 1972, Congress amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious practice or observance unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
This 1972 amendment, although completely appropriate, has been interpreted by the courts so narrowly as to place little restraint on an employer's refusal to provide religious accommodation. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act will restore the weight to the religious accommodation provision that Congress originally intended and help assure that employers have a meaningful obligation to reasonably accommodate their employees' religious practices.

The restoration of this protection is no small matter. 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. I have heard accounts from around the country about employers who will not make reasonable accommodations for employees to observe the Sabbath and other holy days, or for employees to wear religiously-required garb, such as a yarmulke, or for employees to wear clothing that meets religion-based modesty requirements.

The refusal of an employer absent undue hardship to provide reasonable accommodation of a religious practice should be seen as a form of religious discrimination, as originally intended by Congress in 1972. And religious discrimination should be treated as seriously as any other form of discrimination that stands between Americans and equal employment opportunities. Enactment of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act will constitute an important step toward ensuring that all members of society, whatever their religious beliefs and practices, will be protected from an invidious form of discrimination.

Even after September 11, 2001, with a heightened sense of religious sensitivity among the American people, securing greater protections for the religious needs of employees is a major issue. In October 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from a Muslim woman who was pressured by her employer to stop wearing her head scarf. We must come together now to pass this bipartisan legislation.

It is important to recognize that, in addition to protecting the religious freedom of employees, this legislation protects employers from an undue burden. Employees would be allowed to take time off only if their doing so does not pose a significant difficulty or expense for the employer. This common sense definition of undue hardship is used in the Americans with Disabilities Act and has worked well in that context.

We have little doubt that this bill is constitutional because it simply clarifies existing law on discrimination by private employers, strengthening the required standard for employers. This bill does not deal with behavior by State or Federal Governments or substantively expand 14th Amendment rights.

This bill is endorsed by a wide range of organizations including the Agudath Israel of America, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Americans for Democratic Action, Anti-Defamation League, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Bible Sabbath Association, B'nai B'rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Christian Legal Society, Church of Scientology International, Council on Religious Freedom, Family Research Council, General Board of Church and Society The United Methodist Church, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, Hadassah—WZOA, Institute on Religion and Public Policy, The Interfaith Alliance, International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, International Commission on Freedom of Conscience, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Islamic Supreme Council of America, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Policy Center, NA'AMAT USA, National Association of Evangelicals, National Conference for Community and Justice, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., National Council of Jewish Women, National Jewish Democratic Council, National Sikh Center, North American Council for Muslim Women, Presbyterian Church (USA), Rabbinical Council of America, Republican Jewish Coalition, Sikh Council on Religion and Education, Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Traditional Values Coalition, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, United Church of Christ Office for Church in Society, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

I want to thank Senator Santorum for joining me to lead this effort. I look forward to working with him to pass this legislation so that all American workers can be assured of both equal employment opportunities and the ability to practice their religion.

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