There is an interesting op-ed in today’s Des Moines Register concerning religious discrimination in the workplace. The author, Lake Lambert III, is a professor of Religion at Wartburg College in Waverly. He contends employees are subject to religious tyranny because Title VII does not give enough protection to employees’ ability to practice their religion at work. Under existing law, an employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious practice, unless it would result in an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. Generally speaking, an accommodation is an undue hardship if it is costly, compromises safety, decreases efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or causes other employees to do more than their share of hazardous or burdensome work.
Professor Lambert supports a proposed law known as the "Religious Workplace Freedom Act(RWFA)", which would change the existing reasonable accommodation standard. Under the proposed law, for an accommodation to be considered reasonable, "the accommodation shall remove the conflict between employment requirements and the religious observance or practice of the employee." The only defense to such an accommodation is if it requires "significant difficulty or expense." In other words, the burden would be on the employer to alter any employment requirement that conflicts with an employee’s religious practice, unless the employer can prove it would be too financially costly.
Few would disagree that employees should be permitted time off to attend religious services, observe holy days, and the like. If that is the problem, the proposed changes in the law could be more narrowly tailored to address it. In a country with so many different religious practices, however, an expanded duty to accommodate them all could create more problems than it solves. What happens when the practices of different religions conflict? What about situations where an employer’s legitimate interest in safety or uniformity impacts an employee’s desire to wear religious clothing or articles? Under existing law, employers have more flexibility to address these situations in the context of legitimate business needs. The proposed RWFA tips the balance too far the other way.
While Professor Lambert’s proposal may sound good in theory as a way of promoting religious tolerance, in practice it imposes unreasonable obligations on employers and adds very little to religious liberty.