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Workplace bill may threaten LGBT community
Act provides religious exemptions for doctors, law enforcement, others

by Matt Comer . Q-Notes staff

A bill being considered in the U.S. House could allow emergency health workers and others to use their religious beliefs to refuse services to LGBT people.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bill being considered in the U.S. House may threaten the personal and civil rights of LGBT people, women, religious and racial minorities and people seeking reproductive health care, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the nation’s leading civil rights advocacy organization.

Supporters of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (HR 1431) primarily intend to strengthen the existing requirements that mandate employment accommodations for employees’ religious practices. However, the ACLU is warning that vague wording might lead to unintended consequences for minorities, by “permitting employees to claim that they do not have to comply with state or local civil rights laws.”

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (R-NY) and co-sponsored by North Carolina Democrat Rep. David Price and others, prohibits employers from taking actions to “restrict the ability to wear religious clothing, to take time off for a holy day, or to participate in a religious observance or practice.” Employers must also allow for employees to adjust or alter their work schedules or assignments for religious purposes.

The bill’s wording worries legal advocates who say that the broad requirements for religious exemptions might have a direct impact on minorities and others seeking critical health, law enforcement or other services.

The ACLU said the bill could allow a police officer to pick and choose who they will protect or allow emergency health care workers and mental health counselors to abandon patients because their care might conflict with the worker’s religious beliefs.

“This legislation would make it significantly harder to get health or safety information or services. Employees would be even more likely to claim that their religion prohibits them from providing contraceptive care or HIV prevention counseling,” the ACLU asserted in a press statement.

They also noted that U.S. courts have in many cases ruled against employees claims that offering health and other services ran against their religious convictions.

“The Workplace Religious Freedom Act [WRFA] would allow employees, for the first time since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to use civil rights as a weapon against others,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “Passing this bill without the needed fixes will jeopardize not only our rights, but also our public safety and access to health care. Civil rights protections are meant to be a shield, not a sword.

“Congress can, and should, pass legislation tightly focused on strengthening federal requirements that employers accommodate workplace scheduling changes so employees can observe religious holidays, or permit them to wear religious clothing, beards or hairstyles,” Anders continued. “These two areas account for nearly three-fourths of all the religious accommodation claims rejected by federal courts in the past 25 years. A narrowly tailored bill could address these issues without any of the completely avoidable harm the WRFA could cause if passed as written.”

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act is currently held in the U.S. House’s Education and Labor Committee’s Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions subcommittee. At press time, it had not been scheduled for debate or any other hearings.

The bill has garnered support from various religious organizations, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches, the North American Council for Muslim Women, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among others.

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