Senators Guard Religious Freedoms in the Workplace

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

Capitol Hill ( - Aston Beadle says he has wanted to serve his fellow man as a law enforcement officer for as long as he can remember. The only thing he wanted more was to obey the tenets of his Seventh Day Adventist religion, which require him not to work on Saturday. That religious conviction cost Beadle his job not once, but twice.

"I can remember the day when I was terminated, the Colonel looked at me and said, 'You are the kind of people we really want to have and are glad to have in our department,'" Beadle recalled. "And he showed me the dismissal, signed by the sheriff, and he said, 'If, at this time, you will just agree, just say you will work on Saturday, I will trash this.'"

The Florida sheriff's department Beadle worked for fired him just two weeks before his probationary period ended, after having accommodated his religious beliefs for nearly a year. Beadle says the firing was particularly shocking, considering the fact that his immediate commander was happy to have someone available and willing to work every Sunday.

"That was a day that many other people wanted to be off," he recalled. "But the sheriff's department decided that they were not going to set a precedent."

Beadle was later fired again by another Florida law enforcement agency even though, he says, that agency specifically agreed to accommodate his beliefs as a condition of his accepting the job.

"The head of the department said to me, 'You may go and sue us. We don't have to do it. We are not going to,'" he explained.

Experiences such as Beadle's are exactly the situations meant to be addressed by the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, S. 2572, according to lead co-sponsor, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

"Someone should be able to engage in those practices where it does not place an undue hardship - a sort of standard of reasonableness about a hardship - on a particular employer," he said.

Kerry says an arbitrary decision such as the one suffered by Beadle is "unnecessary."

"Not only is it unnecessary," he continued, "it is inappropriate and unacceptable to the full measure of practice of religion and tolerance that makes us who we are as a country."

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), another co-sponsor of the bill, says protecting the freedom of religious expression recognized in the First Amendment is essential to what America is all about.

"Of all the freedoms in the First Amendment, I believe the most significant is the freedom of religion because it is, indeed, the freedom of conscience, the freedom to believe what you want to believe," he said. "Freedom of speech means nothing if you can't say what you believe."

Santorum says that it is specifically because the country does not have an official religion that religions thrive so well in the United States.

"That's a wonderful environment for our country and it's a wonderful lesson that people can disagree about very deeply held beliefs and live together in peace and harmony," he added. "But it's not perfect, and this is one example that we have a place where religious expression is unduly restricted."

Santorum says neither he, nor any of the 12 other cosponsors of the bill is proposing that people be able to do "just anything" at work, using religion as a shield from discipline and order.

"What we believe is that we need to restore balance," he explained.

Richard Foltin is co-chairman of the Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace, a collection of nearly 50 groups from a variety of religious belief systems that support the bill.

"No employee should be arbitrarily forced to choose between obedience to his or her faith or keeping a job," he said. "The refusal of an employer, absent undue hardship, to provide reasonable accommodation of a religious practice is nothing less than a form of religious discrimination."

S. 2572 would establish three factors to be considered when determining whether providing an accommodation would cause an employer an undue hardship:

- The identifiable cost of the accommodation, including the costs of loss of productivity and of retraining or hiring employees or transferring employees from one facility to another;

- The overall financial resources and size of the employer involved, relative to the number of its employees; and

- For an employer with multiple facilities, the geographic separateness or administrative or fiscal relationship of the facilities.

If, after considering these factors, an employer refuses to provide a "reasonable accommodation" to the employee, or to allow the employee to take time off without pay to meet a religious obligation, the employer would be in violation of the act.

Santorum says there is no fear of the legislation being unfairly used to protect those who might try to force their religion on others at work.

"No, I don't think there's anything in this legislation that would lead anyone to believe that they could go to that extent," he concluded. "What we're trying to do here is simply create an atmosphere where both sides will find it within their interests to negotiate some sort of accommodation."

The bill contains no separate enforcement mechanism but, as an amendment to title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, would be subject to the existing civil and criminal enforcement provisions of that law.

E-mail a news tip to Jeff Johnson.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.