Retail giant Sears, Roebuck & Co. will allow its New York State employees who have religious objections to working on Saturday to work on Sunday instead. This concession is part of a larger settlement, reached Tuesday, April 4, between Sears and the New York State Attorney General’s office. The attorney general has been investigating complaints that Sears fired Donovan Reed, a Seventh-day Adventist repair-person, and refused employment to as many as five Orthodox Jews because they could not work on Saturday.
“People should not be forced to choose between their faith and supporting their family,” State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer told reporters after announcing the details of the settlement. The agreement also includes ten $12,000 scholarships for Sabbath observers to attend technical repair training school, religious accommodation training for Sears personnel, and $100,000 to the attorney general’s office to help cover costs associated with the investigation.
Seventh-day Adventist lawyer Mitchell Tyner, an associate in the world Church’s Office of General Counsel, welcomes the New York settlement as a step forward in educating employers about the need to be more flexible in accommodating their employees’ religious beliefs.
“It’s especially encouraging to see a state attorney general get serious about religious discrimination in the workplace and to achieve something substantial,” says Tyner, who provided the New York Attorney General’s office with information on similar Sabbath employment cases involving Adventist Church members.
Tyner notes, however, that the terms of the agreement apply only to Sears’ New York State operations, and says that, on the whole, federal legal protection for employees needing on-the-job religious accommodation has often proved inadequate.
“The Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), introduced into the House on April 11, would strengthen the legal position of individuals trying to juggle the demands of their faith with those of their work,” says Tyner, who helped draft the legislation.
The bill would “clarify the burden of employers to accommodate the religious needs of their employees,” says Tyner, adding that WFRA would provide both employers and employees with a better understanding of the legal requirements. “Two employees, for instance, would be able to voluntarily swap individual shifts without violating a labor union contract,” he says. The legislation would also deem partial measures-such as occasional relief from Sabbath work-as insufficient in meeting the legal standard of “accommodation.”
Support for WRFA has come from a diverse coalition of civil rights and religious organizations, including the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League.
The bill has been introduced into Congress each session for the past five years. Despite the lack of headway so far, supporters say the bill is steadily gaining the bilateral political support necessary to make the bill law.