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Post date: April 26 2002

Silver And Spitzer Seek Greater Civil Rights Protections For Religious Observance And Expression

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Attorney General Spitzer today said that legislation passed yesterday by the Assembly strikes a blow in favor of the rights of employees to practice and express their religious faith in keeping with the fundamental individual freedoms that are the core of our national values.

The Silver bill, advanced by Spitzer and now before the Senate, would extend current state protections to a wide range of religious beliefs, guaranteeing an employee's right to comply with religious practices and use leave time for religious observance. The measure (A.7340) was unanimously approved by the Assembly on Wednesday, April 24.

In addition to the legislation, Spitzer announced a settlement of a religious freedom case involving Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

"An individual's right to practice their faith without risking employment is a fundamental principle of American democracy. The bill we passed yesterday would ensure that New Yorkers have full and fair access to employment without abandoning their faiths or essential religious practices," said Silver, who during his tenure in the Assembly has been in the forefront of advancing religious freedom legislation.

"An individual should not be forced to choose between worship and work," Spitzer said. "The law requires employers to take reasonable steps to accommodate the religious beliefs of their employees. We are committed to securing that religious freedom for workers."

"Desire to observe religious practices should not result in the loss of a job," said Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. "This bill provides a balanced approach by seeking to protect workers, while ensuring that employers do not face undue economic hardship."

According to Silver, while the federal Civil Rights Law ensures a reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs, current state law fails to fully protect employees or prospective employees whose dress, hairstyle, beards, prayer requirements and Sabbath and holy day observances are required by their religious beliefs. Silver noted that this void can lead to situations in which individuals are faced with the prospect of compromising their faith or their ability to support themselves and their families.

In addition to enhancing protections to employees, the bill also provides direction to employers by defining what would constitute an "undue economic hardship" to an employer, a criteria that has long existed in state law but has not been clearly defined. The legislation also specifies that employers would not be required to provide an accommodation if it would result in the individual being unable to perform the core functions of his or her position.

At the morning news conference, Spitzer also announced that his office has reached settlements with Virgin Atlantic Airways under which the air passenger carrier will accommodate an employee's faith that requires time off from work for religious observances.

The settlement with Virgin Atlantic, which covers all passenger services employees at Virgin Atlantic's JFK Airport terminal, will require the airline to undertake a progressive set of measures – from attempting to secure voluntary shift swaps to developing special work schedules where possible – to accommodate an employee's request for time off for religious observances.

The investigation into Virgin Atlantic's practices began after Assemblyman Dov Hikind referred a complaint that he received from one of his constituents to the Attorney General's office. The complaint, filed by one of Virgin Atlantic's former Passenger Service Agents at the JFK Airport terminal, alleged that the company refused to accommodate his request for time off to observe the Sabbath and ultimately forced him to resign from his job. The complaint alleged that a Virgin Atlantic manager at the terminal told him that it was company policy not to alter employee schedules determined through the company's shift-bid process, even if an employee required time off for religious needs.

The legislation passed by the Assembly is supported by Agudath Israel of America, the American Jewish Congress, the Baptist Joint Committee, the Catholic Conference, the Christian Legal Society, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Orthodox Union, the Sikh Organization of New York, Religious Action Center – Union of American Hebrew Congregations.