WRFA in Minnesota
Kathryn Joyce printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Apr 02, 2007 at 05:29:26 PM EST
The Somali Muslim community of Minneapolis has been in the headlines a lot this week as the clash between a number of conservative Muslim airport cabbies, who say that their religion prohibits them from transporting passengers carrying alcohol (or, in a more contested claim, disabled passengers with service animals like seeing-eye dogs), is coming to a head with the adoption of a set of airport guidelines that will penalize such refusals. According to the Star-Tribune, nearly 100 passengers are turned away a month by (mostly) Muslim cabbies following strict interpretations of the Koran. Further, a local imam has recently declared that taxi drivers should turn away customers carrying alcohol, and other incidents, concerning a number of Minnesota Target clerks refusing to scan and bag pork products, has only exacerbated the tensions.

Predictably, now that the conscience clause claims are on the other foot, conservative media outlets that were quick to defend the right of Christian pharmacists to refuse women birth control prescriptions, are even quicker to denounce this blurring of religious and secular laws...

They've labeled it an encroachment of Sharia law and reverse religious-discrimination that the Left refuses to condemn; an unacceptable case of forcing one's beliefs on others; and for those freedom-fighters wedded to older metaphors, the predictable result of "useful idiots" critiquing radical conservative Christian movements instead of battling "Islamofascism."

But what's more interesting than the scripted volleys between conservative Muslims and America's home-grown nationalists, is the timing of the debate: coinciding within days of March's House re-introduction of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA): a bill that has been on offer every year since 1997, and has been marked by its unusually broad base of support: from far-right Christians to moderate Jewish groups, with a wealth representatives from Sikh, Muslim and smaller Christian denominations thrown in.

Minnesota Public Radio sums up some of the issues at hand in WRFA:

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employer doesn't have to accommodate a person's religious practice if doing so would cause undue hardship on the business.

A coalition of religious organizations says the courts have watered down the hardship standard so that employees have little chance to express their religion at work. Nathan Diament, Public Policy Director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, says the coalition wants Congress to pass the so-called Workplace Religious Freedom Act because it would require more from employers.

"Now the state of federal law is that if an employer would have even a minimal inconvenience in accommodating an employee's religious needs, the employer does not have to accommodate those religious needs. So the Workplace Religious Freedom Act or WRFA is designed to reinstate the original congressional strength of that provision of the Civil Rights Act," says Diament.

Under the act, an employer could avoid accommodating a person's religious practice if doing so would be significantly difficult or expensive. The new standard largely gauges an employer's hardship financially; the cost of lost productivity, retraining or hiring of additional employees, and of accommodating someone's religion in relation to the employer's revenues.

Diament, one of WRFA's most stalwart defenders, and a standard talking-head in all coverage of the issue, has pled this objection for nearly as long as WRFA has been on the table. (And just as long, centrist Democrats have been advocating its adoption as a show of good faith for Democratic politicians trying to appeal to conservatives.) For constituencies such as his Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, whose interest in WFRA is generally about the accommodation of Jewish holidays and observance of the Sabbath, the cost of accommodation may not be great.

But as WRFA's critics point out, the overly broad and vague language of the bill would protect not just unobtrusive displays of faith such as Sabbath-observance, or religious hairstyles, but also a wide-ranging list of duties and services that religious employees find objectionable, such as pharmacists filling prescriptions, cops guarding abortion clinics, social service workers counseling gays, or prison and rehabilitation workers treating patients and prisoners without proselytizing their faith: all court cases that the ACLU has noted in its advocacy against WRFA.

he American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose the bill because they say it's too broad. Christopher Anders, the ACLU's legislative counsel, says the legislation could cause more harm than it intends to remedy; for example protecting workers who refuse to provide healthcare services.

"If someone wants to refuse to provide a health care service, whether it's refusing to fill a prescription for an emergency contraceptive or take someone to a hospital for an emergency termination of a pregnancy, it would be much easier for the employee to claim that he or she has a religious objection to doing those things," Anders says.

The breadth of the legislation is a concern even for some religious believers who want to carry their religions into the workplace. That's according to Richard Garnett who's a visiting law professor at the University of Chicago and a former law clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Garnett says there's another concern. He says the bill defines a business' hardship largely in financial costs when workplace culture can also be a loss.

It will be interesting to see how the lines are drawn this year when WRFA is debated in Congress. In years past, it has garnered the support of politicians ranging from John Kerry to Rick Santorum. How will Santorum's fellow conservative Christians treat the bill now that its principles are being put to the test by a very different sort of believer than the one they imagined they were protecting?

But - can we object to war?  Not just potential military members, but those of us who are forced to pay for it, even though our religion says it's wrong?

by dksbook on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 12:53:19 AM EST
there have been many efforts to not pay "war taxes."  These efforts have never stood up in court.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Apr 03, 2007 at 01:50:54 AM EST

It would be interesting to see if the current case against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for refusing to allow a soldier killed in Iraq, and a wiccan, to put his religious symbol on his own grave, is also brought up.

Considering that Wicca is the only reconized religion by the military that doesn't allow for it's religious symbols on headstones, what do the champions of WRFA have to say?

see: http://www.nevadaappeal.com/article/20061116/OPINION/111160123

by Stacey Tallitsch on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 01:44:50 PM EST

if a law like this might actually increase religious prejudice in hiring. Would Target just avoid the whole problem of a cashier refusing to handle pork by not hiring the applicant they think might be Muslim?

by flaring on Wed Apr 04, 2007 at 08:10:54 PM EST

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