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Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC




S. 3628. A bill to amend title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to establish provisions with respect to religious accommodations in employment, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, today I introduced a piece of legislation that
working on for over 10 years, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.

Religious pluralism is a source of strength for this country. It always has been. That is why I support the Workplace Religious Freedom Act or WRFA, as I have ever since I first introduced it back in 1996.

My personal involvement with this issue goes back to two Catholic women working at a dog-racing track in Raynham, Massachusetts. They were fired from their jobs because they refused to work on Christmas Eve. They felt it was against their religion to do business that night. We need to pass WRFA to make it clear that here in America, living out your faith is not a reason to lose your job.

The bill is designed to protect people just like those two women: workers suffering from on-the-job discrimination because of their religious beliefs and practices. It requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee's religious practice or observance, such as time off or dress. It protects, within reason, time off for religious observances. And it protects Yarmulkes, Hijabs, Turbans, Mormon garments--all the distinctive marks of our religious practices. All the things that everyone should be proud of and nobody should ever be forced to hide.

All of us should have the freedom to abide by and to express our religious beliefs--they are crucial to our individual and communal identities, and collectively, they are a crucial part of our national identity as a diverse and tolerant country.

Writing religious freedom into law is by necessity a balancing act between universal values--such as religious tolerance and equal treatment--with the particulars that each of our faiths demand of us. Just as religious scholars wonder whether God can create an indestructible rock and then destroy it, scholars of religious pluralism have to answer a similar riddle: does a pluralism that's based on tolerance, tolerate intolerance?

Squaring this circle will always be a balancing act. Religious freedom in America doesn't mean the absolute right to impose your religion on others. With WRFA we have achieved that balance by protecting not only religious practices in the workplace but also by protecting those that don't share the same faith or choose not to practice at work.

I find that if you look at the vast, vast majority of actual cases, protecting religious freedom turns out to be a matter of common sense.

Consider the case of Jack Rosenberg, a 35-year-old Hasidic Jew from Rockland County, New York. Jack signed up for the Coast Guard and passed his training, only to .discover that he wasn't allowed to wear his yarmulke. ``As soon as I got sworn in and got ready to put on the uniform,'' Mr. Rosenberg said, ``the commander came to me and said it's going to be a problem.'' As Mr. Rosenberg said, ``If my religion requires it, ``there's not a choice.'' I agree: No American should raise his or religion with an employer and be told: ``it's going to be a problem.'' I am proud to say that the Coast Guard changed their regulations to allow for religious headgear. We fought for Jack Rosenberg and we won.

Another case involves a server at a Red Robin restaurant who belongs to the ancient Egyptian Kemetic religion, which doesn't allow him to hide his religious tattoos. Red Robin fired him for a wrist tattoo less than a quarter-inch wide. In the end, he won in court and Red Robin agreed to train managers to better understand religious discrimination.

This isn't about litigation. It is about protecting the right of free expression and ensuring that religious people feel comfortable in the workplace. We must never leave anyone with the idea that practicing one's religion and being American are in conflict. That is fundamental to how we live as Americans, and I will fight to make sure that our laws governing religious freedom are worthy of our values.

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