Time for a Prayer Circle

Clinton and Kerry launch an unlikely crusade for religious freedom at work

A new bill co-sponsored by senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry would seem, on the surface, the perfect chance to carry out the Democratic Party's fresh-minted strategy of getting religion. Supporters of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act say it would guarantee the right to religious expression on the job—whether that means a Sikh wearing a turban or an Orthodox Jew honoring the Sabbath. Its backers include a 40-strong coalition of leading clerics representing nearly every denomination—from Jewish to Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, and Seventh-Day Adventist.

Sounds straightforward, right?

The problem for Clinton and Kerry—two of the Democratic Party's biggest names and its most likely presidential candidates—is that a broad swath of their left-wing base thinks the bill is a backdoor means to curb individual rights, and has come out hard against it. Heavyweights like the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign contend that, in practice, "workplace religious freedom" could allow a nurse to refuse to give the morning-after pill to a rape victim. Or it could allow a school counselor to proselytize on "sins of the homosexual lifestyle" to a gay teen.

"None of us say we don't want religious freedom," says Rachel Laser, of the National Women's Law Center, which opposes the bill. "We just don't want something that would harm women's and gay people's and, for that matter, anyone's civil rights."

Most other Democrats have shied away from signing on to the bill so far. Indeed, among Senate Democrats, Clinton and Kerry stand nearly alone. (Of the five Democratic backers, four, including Senator Charles Schumer, are from the tristate area—where the Catholic and Orthodox Jewish bases are important.)

Clinton's office has been notably quiet about her involvement, perhaps indicating that any credit she hopes to get for pushing the bill would come not from the larger public, but from the kind of select religious interests she's been courting lately as she lays the groundwork for a possible White House run in 2008 (see "God Is a Centrist Democrat," March 2). Her office says the senator will work to fine-tune the bill as it moves to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, where she sits.

"Senator Clinton has responded to the concerns raised by offering to work to make improvements that will satisfy all stakeholders," says Philippe Reines, her spokesperson.

Kerry, by contrast, has positively crowed about the bill, perhaps because he learned the value of the values vote when his own presidential bid sank last year. On March 17, he stood shoulder to shoulder with one of his most hard-right colleagues, Rick Santorum, to introduce the act, hailing it as a defense of religious liberty. "Our nation was founded on freedom of religion," Kerry said at a Capitol Hill press conference, "and it should be clear in our laws that no American should ever have to choose between keeping a job and keeping faith with their cherished religious beliefs."

No one can know for sure what Kerry and Clinton's motivations are for putting their names on this bill. Maybe they're true believers in the measure itself, or maybe they're trying to win over churchgoing voters who've turned away from the party. Maybe each just can't afford to be "out-religioned" by the other. Whatever the reason, it seems clear to political observers that the leading Democrats are looking to send some kind of message.

"They're doing it to say, 'Hey, look, I'm not an anti-religious person,' " says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. "By getting your name on the bill, you prove that you're not like the rest of those dirty Democrats refusing to support religious liberty."

Religious freedom in the workplace has long been an issue in Washington. There's already a law on the books designed to prevent employees from suffering religious discrimination on the job—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But religious and civil rights advocates alike say three decades' worth of court rulings have chipped away at its protections.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, or WRFA, would restore teeth to the existing law. Currently, an employer must accommodate an employee's religious practices only if doing so doesn't cost much—financially or otherwise. The new bill would raise that threshold and protect such forms of religious expression as clothing, time off, and so-called "conscience" issues. That means that a Muslim receptionist could wear a head scarf, a Catholic supervisor could take off Good Friday, and an Orthodox Jewish saleswoman could defer from shaking the hands of male customers.

Nathan Diament, director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America's Institute for Public Affairs, which has made the bill's passage a top priority, says the religious community has tried for years to correct a real problem. "We've seen people of all faiths having to choose between their careers and their conscience."

His organization is part of the Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace, the comprehensive group pushing the bill. It includes avatars of the Christian right like the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition, as well as social-justice crusaders like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

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