Religious practices vs. work demands

Denver Airport sets up shelter where Muslim cabbies can pray.

When the city of Denver moved a glass shelter to its international airport this winter - giving Muslim cabbies a warm place to pray to Allah - it did not merely show government goodwill toward a religious minority.

The move highlighted the growing willingness of American employers to provide for their workers' religious needs.

From the federal government to corporate businesses, employers are being asked to accommodate the country's growing religious diversity. And they're more inclined than ever to satisfy workers' requirements, experts say. For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration now exempts Sikhs from hard-hat rules, in deference to the turbans they wear.

In Denver, Muslim taxi and airport-shuttle drivers had long petitioned the city for a sheltered space so they could make their kneeling prayers to Allah five times a day.

"It has been hard for us in times of snow and rain," acknowledges Zahir Din, a cabby who led the call on behalf of about 100 Muslim drivers. In mid-December, airport officials relocated a steel-framed glass shelter to the transportation "holding area."

Yet at the same time, the conflict between work demands and religious practices persists. The number of lawsuits claiming religious discrimination by employers has risen steadily - from 1,192 in 1991 to 1,786 in 1998, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington.

It's not that society is any less tolerant of religious expression, says Roberto Corrada, a law professor from the University of Denver. Rather, heightened tensions are unavoidable as more employees exercise their legal rights in the workplace, he says.

"In the last decade or so, religion has been more a part of the political landscape, and a lot more people in minority religions are now claiming their rights and asking for accommodations," Mr. Corrada explains. "The truth is that minority religions have a harder time getting accommodated than majority religions simply because employers often don't understand [religions outside the mainstream]."

As for the public's awareness of religious rights, "I think we're doing better," says the Rev. Oliver Thomas, legal counsel for the National Council of Churches based in Washington. "But I think this is going to get harder, not easier, and that's because of the diversity of religion," he predicts.

Twenty years ago, in Mr. Thomas's hometown of Maryville, Tenn., the question of diversity was "were you Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian?" he says. Today, in the same town of 20,000 residents, religious groups as varied as Buddhists, Muslims, and Bahai live side by side with Christians and Jews.

"As far as religious diversity goes, we are just getting good and started," Thomas says. "We are facing new challenges because of all the different religious practices we are bringing into the workplace."

A frequent point of conflict is the clothing worn by workers for religious reasons. In a high-profile case in North Carolina, a Muslim flight attendant employed by US Airways was forbidden to wear the traditional head-garb required by her religion. She was fired when she refused to comply. But when she challenged the airline in court, she won.

Being forced to work on a holy day is another frequent complaint among employees, says EEOC spokesman Michael Widomski. And the law is tricky here: Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which disallows religious discrimination and harassment - employers are obliged to "reasonably accommodate" the religious practice of workers.

However, this holds true under the law only if "undue hardship" isn't imposed on the employer. If it costs money to find a replacement to cover a holy day, the request for time off can be denied.

But employees whose religious convictions prohibit them working on the Sabbath are simply not in a position to compromise on the issue, Corrada says. "This is the equivalent of forcing a Catholic to have an abortion."

A bill has been introduced to Congress this year, attempting to raise the standards on private-sector employers under Title VII.

Federal employers face more stringent requirements, with 1997 government guidelines stating they should "permit religious expression by employees to the greatest extent permissible." With that, requests for Sabbath time off stands on firmer legal ground.

More so than the private sector, public employers need to be careful that they don't appear to be endorsing a religion or showing favoritism, says Steve Smith, a law professor at University of Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Ind. This would violate the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment, he notes.

In fact, officially, the new shelter at the Denver airport isn't intended for Muslims - or for prayer. "It will be accessible to all drivers as a shelter," says Amy Bourgeron, airport deputy manager. "But if Muslims want to use it for prayer, that's fine."

Even so, only Muslims drivers requested a shelter, so they believe the airport has responded commendably. "This is a good conclusion for church and state," says Mohamed Jodeh, of the Colorado Muslim Society.

Lawmakers are reluctant to force private employers to follow religious-accommodation rules. Most prefer voluntary guidelines instead. Others say improvements will come as more companies are educated on the need for tolerance of religious diversity.

Thomas says the main question for employers is: "Do you care enough about your neighbor to respect his faith?"

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