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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
April 8, 2005

Employee religious freedom bill may harm gay workers

Washington, D.C.--A bill being considered by committees in both chambers of Congress to protect religious freedom in the workplace is drawing criticism from civil rights groups.

The groups, both LGBT and mainline, argue that the Workplace Religion Freedom Act, introduced simultaneously in the House of Representatives and the Senate on March 17, would weaken the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by forcing employers to allow their workers to engage in anti-gay, religious-based diatribes at work.

They also say that it could be interpreted to allow doctors to refuse to treat LGBT patients or be used by employees to refuse to work alongside queer coworkers.

Supporters of the legislation, which was introduced by Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, say that their bill is simply designed to allow for easier access to days off for religious holidays and to allow people to wear garments mandated by their religious beliefs.

Santorum is known for espousing anti-gay views and received a 14% on the Human Rights Campaign Congressional Scorecard, while Souder received a zero, having neither supported any pro-LGBT legislation nor put in place any LGBT-supportive policies in his own office.

Opponents of the measures, including the HRC, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the National Council of Jewish Women, argue that the law could still be effective and viable for its stated purpose with some minor changes, like an amendment that the law does not trump existing civil rights protections or corporate non-discrimination policies.

NCJW, Planned Parenthood and the National Women�s Law Council held meetings with Democratic sponsors of the bill to illustrate ways to alter the bill to make it less dangerous without diluting its positive effects.

One thing that disturbs progressive groups the most about the legislation, though, is the number and prominence of Democratic sponsors in both chambers.

In the Senate, both former presidential candidate John Kerry and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are among the five Democrats who signed on as co-sponsors.

In the House, four of seven co-sponsors are Democrats.

�Kerry has made promises that he would try to fix the bill but his office has been adamantly unwilling to make changes,� Christopher Anders, legislative counsel for the ACLU Washington office, told the Southern Voice.

Kerry earned a 100% rating on the HRC�s scorecard.

In the Senate, the bill is currently in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. In the House, it is in the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Both bills have been in committee since March 17.


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