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Clinton Acts to Protect Worship in the Cubicle

His move yesterday to protect religious rights in federal offices may be a model for private sector

For years, employees and employers have been confused over just what religious discrimination means when it comes to the workplace. Can Seventh-day Adventists or Orthodox Jews legally request time off for the Sabbath? Can a Christian place a Bible next to a software manual at his or her desk?

Yesterday President Clinton tried to clarify these questions by spelling out - for the first time ever - a set of federal guidelines for the protection of religious expression in the workplace. They would allow Bibles next to desks and time off for religious holidays.

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The guidelines cover federal workers only, but the White House hopes they will be a model for the private sector. And they are seen as a symbolic effort by the president to show support for religious freedom - on the heels of a stinging setback in June by the US Supreme Court, when it struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The guidelines come as conflicts are slowly increasing in the workplace over everything from wearing the Jewish yarmulke or the Muslim hejab to inviting fellow workers to church - as the increasing religious diversity of America spreads to the job site. The number of religious-discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased from 1,192 in 1991 to 1,564 in 1996. Many thousands more cases are mediated in local courts.

"Religious freedom is at the heart of what it means to be an American and at the heart of our journey to become truly one America," Mr. Clinton said in announcing the guidelines.

Detailing religious protection

Religious discrimination or harassment is disallowed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But unlike other categories covered in that act - race, gender, and national origin - no specific guidelines had ever been agreed to for religious expression.

Under the law, employers must "reasonably accommodate" the religious observance and practice of employees. The new federal guidelines do not change that standard, but attempt to clarify it.

"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," the new rules state.

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In 1993, the administration spelled out nearly identical guidelines. But they were withdrawn after protests by the Christian right. Religious conservatives felt - wrongly say US officials - that the 1993 laws would further restrict pro-active efforts to share faith or disagree openly with "lifestyle choices" such as homosexuality.

The new laws make a subtle change, stating that no pattern of discrimination or repeated efforts to proselytize or criticize will be tolerated - though persons are free to express themselves until asked not to. "An insult, a denunciation, an argument - that's OK," says James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee. "Just so long as you don't keep it up. To us, that's reasonable."

Broad support

Yesterday's announcement came after the administration brought in a broad range of religious and public-interest groups from both the liberal and conservative sides of the political spectrum, including People for the American Way and the evangelical Christian Legal Society.

As a result, many of them were quick to praise the administration. "This clarifies what the law has always said," says Ronald Rissler of the Rutherford Institute, an evangelical watch group. "So it will be a big help to us in allowing for observance of religious holidays, time off, and speech in the workplace."

Whether the new guidelines will actually lessen discrimination beyond federal offices, or create more willingness on the part of employers to accommodate religious practices, is unclear. Views on how much discrimination now takes place vary widely. Most cases today center on sexual harassment or racial discrimination. The relative numbers of religious cases are small.

"I don't think employers are more or less sensitive about religion," says Norman Davis, a specialist with the law firm of Steel, Hector and Davis in Miami. "The cases are very infrequent."

Yet Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups claim increased discrimination and harassment of all types. In recent years, they have been more boldly asserting their claims.

In 1995, the White House spelled out similar religious-discrimination guidelines for public schools. So far, that has brought an increase in the number of claims recorded by the Rutherford Institute from 8,200 to about 9,000.

* Staff writer Shelley Donald Coolidge contributed to this report.

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