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Cynicism on the faith-based front
January 21st, 2005
Its become almost mandatory these days for politicians to talk about the importance of religion in American life and the need for the government to support people of faith.
So why has Congress refused to pass the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA), a simple measure intended to make it easier for workers to fulfill their religious obligations without risking their jobs?
Could it be that its strongest supporters including, but not limited to, Jews across the religious spectrum are not politically important enough to the new Capitol Hill moralists to justify the expenditure of any political capital?
Or could be that for all their pious rhetoric, politicians quickly lose interest when helping religion upsets their more important constituencies, like the business lobby?
Or is it that the groups that scream the loudest about religious rights arent much interested in rights of religious minorities?
All of this comes to mind as Jewish groups once again try to get WRFA on the Senate calendar, hoping that will spur an even more indifferent House of Representatives to action.
WRFA, introduced in its current form eight years ago, was the legislative response to what Jewish groups say is a real problem: people forced to make impossible choices when their jobs do not offer the flexibility they need to fulfill obligations like observing the Sabbath or important religious holidays.
Congress tried to fix that more than three decades ago by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to require religious accommodations unless they resulted in an undue hardship to employers, but that law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1977.
WRFA was introduced because of what some religious leaders Jewish, Christian and Muslim saw as an increase in such problems in the workplace.
Year after year, WRFA advocates doggedly lobby new members, seek co-sponsors, press for hearings and build grassroots support only to be met by indifference on the part of the congressional leaders who decide what gets on the calendar and what stays buried.
Congress spent countless hours last year debating gay marriage bans that had no chance of passing, and public displays of the Ten Commandments, but the leadership has invested almost no time in WRFA, which would have an immediate and direct impact in helping people of faith.
Religious freedom vs.
Part of the problem is opposition from small business groups that oppose any government requirements that might potentially cost them money. WRFA, which requires employers to make only reasonable accommodations, has been rewritten numerous times to minimize the cost to businesses, but the very concept of such regulation is deeply offensive to this important sector.
Last year backers had another setback when the American Civil Liberties Union somehow concluded that WRFA would confer rights that could lead policemen to claim their religious beliefs prevented them from protecting abortion clinics from anti-abortion terrorists. Therefore, the law would threaten abortion rights.
Many pro-abortion rights groups reject that claim, although the National Council of Jewish Women has endorsed the ACLU view.
Then theres just plain indifference. WRFA isnt an issue with the ability to rile up huge numbers of voters and campaign contributors or land lawmakers on the evening news.
Its also hard to avoid the conclusion that because the issue is inaccurately seen mostly as a Jewish issue, it isnt going to be on the top of the congressional to-do list.
Theres something cynical about this whole religion in politics business. Lawmakers are perfectly happy talking about what they claim is a war against religion, or thundering against judges who have removed God from the public schools.
But thats just old-fashioned political grandstanding, not requiring the kinds of hard decisions and uncomfortable compromises that real-world policymaking demands.
So many groups on the religious right play along with this sham, pressing their narrowly sectarian goals while claiming they are fighting for all religious people, pontificating and sermonizing instead of participating in an honest effort to help a religiously diverse population.
Some of the groups that scream the loudest about protecting religion seem mostly concerned about protecting their denominations, not the minority religions WRFA would help the most.
The Christian Coalition doesnt mention WRFA in its list of legislative priorities, nor do most of the other Evangelical groups that claim leadership in the fight to protect religious rights.
For that matter, the Bush administration, which has made protecting religion a cornerstone of its domestic policy, has been conspicuously silent on WRFA. Shifting government money to religious groups, overwhelmingly Christian, is fine; bucking the business lobby to help people fulfill their religious obligations is apparently too much for the faith-based White House.
Passing WRFA this year should be simple if legislators mean what they say about helping people of faith. If they once again put the measure in the diplomatic deep freeze, it will be pretty good proof that all the recent talk about helping religion is just that talk.
Former Madisonian James D. Besser has been Washington correspondent for the New York Jewish Week, the Cleveland Jewish News and other leading Anglo-Jewish newspapers for more than 15 years.