Quandary for industry: time off for religion

Exactly when and under what conditions can workers claim time off from their jobs because of "religious beliefs"? US business officials will shortly be facing a significant new set of federal guidelines to give them some standards on this question.

Because the guidelines -- expected to be issued here late this month or early in March -- will seek to provide specific rules for workers and employers regarding religious beliefs and time off, it is believed likely they will lead to a flurry to litigation, both by business groups and individual workers.

Among issues expected to be dealt with in the new guidelines, prepared by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

* Under what "religious" beliefs, practices, or observances can a worker claim time off from the job?

* To what extent, if any, can an employer inquire into a prospective employee's religious beliefs before hiring the person to determine what days he might be available for work?

* What jobs, if any, might require workers to be present on certain working days, notwithstanding personal religious beliefs?

One business organization, the Chamber of the Commerce of the United States, has already described the initial guidelines as "overreaching." The proposal was circulated to business, labor, and public-interest groups for comment late last year.

Now, with some 362 formal responses from interested groups, the commission is putting the wraps on a final set of guidelines, which will be published in the Federal Register sometime in the next few weeks.

The guidelines, which will apply directly to most businesses in the United States, interpret a 1972 amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The amendment sought to define "religion" as including "all aspects of religious observance and practice . . . ."

In subsequent litigation involving Trans World Airlines, the US Supreme Court indicated that an employer need not incur more than minimal costs to accommodate an employee's religious preferences regarding time off work. In other words, as business groups interpret what the high court said, an employer need make only "reasonable accommodation" with an employee for such time off, without imposing "undue burden" on the employer or business.

The guidelines are designed to "clarify" the court's decision.

The proposal suggests that after an employee or prospective employee has notified the employer or labor organization of a need for time off on religious grouns, the company and union (where a labor contract apaplies) must explore all possible methods of reasonable accommodation. Further, another initial proposal requires that the company must adopt alternatives regarding time off which have the fewest disadvantages for the individidual requiring it. Thus, the burden on time off would presumably shift to the company -- not the employee.

The employer (again, under the initial proposals) would not be able to ask a prospective employee questions about religious preference that might touch on when the individual could work. That would occur after the person was hired, but would then be subject to "reasonable accommodation" rules.

An EEOC spokesman argues that the guidelines, which might be quite different when finally published, are designed to protect religious beliefs of workers, not to "hinder" management. According to the spokesman, the initial proposals were deliberately written in strong terms because they had to be strong enough to have something let after being "beaten down" in the comment-drafting stage when the rules are put together.

William H. Knapp, an official of the Us Chamber of Commerce, says the proposed guidelines will only "confuse" rather than "clarify" current law. Mr. Knapp also calls them too "broad and overreaching" and likely to impose unnecessary hardship and cost on businesses.

In all likelihood, according to legal analysts here, the federal courts will eventually have to untangle what may well be a crucial impasse between government and industry.

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