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And on the Seventh Day, My Boss Let Me Rest

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page K01

The Virginia business community breathed a sigh of relief on July 13 when the General Assembly held a special session to correct a mistake reviving a law that allowed employees to refuse to work on the Sabbath.

I was sad to see that "mistake" go away so quickly. I mean, for all the modern preaching about "work-life balance," here was a nearly 400-year-old law that put some teeth into the practice. (Businesses would have faced misdemeanor charges for breaking the law.)


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Del. Mitchell Van Yahres (D-Charlottesville) cast the only vote against the repeal. "Everyone jumped to the defense of business," he said just before the vote. "I still haven't heard anyone speak up for the employees."

However, just because that Virginia law was tossed doesn't mean your boss can make you work on the Sabbath. No matter what state you live in, federal law provides some basic protections as you try to balance the demands of work and religious observance.

Before you turn to the law, though, start by asking your boss for the time off. Many managers will happily accommodate your request.

Jesse Mendelson, 26, said the partners at the small Rockville law firm where he works as a lawyer have been "magnificent" about his need to take off for the Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday for Mendelson, who is Jewish. How did he get so lucky? By being upfront about his needs in job interviews.

"At some point you're going to have to tell them anyway," he said. Be polite about it, though. "Being combative about it is not going to get you much of anywhere."

The firm's respectful attitude about the Sabbath and religious holidays was the clincher in his decision to take that job over another offer. His dad joked that not having to battle with his employer over the issue was worth $15,000 a year in salary, recalled Mendelson, who lives in the District.

If asking nicely doesn't work, remind the bosses of the rules. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against people because of religion in hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment -- and that includes needing a day off to observe the Sabbath.

"Employers must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer," according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Web site.

"Reasonable" accommodation includes flexible scheduling, voluntary shift swaps with other employees and transfers to another position within the organization, under EEOC rules. However, this does not mean your employer has to go along with any request. You can't traipse into work and insist that you now need to be home every day by 4 p.m. because you're a high priestess in the Cult of Oprah.

The law also protects an employer if meeting the request would impose an "undue hardship" on its business interests. Undue hardship occurs "if accommodating an employee's religious practices requires more than ordinary administrative costs, diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees' job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee's share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, or if the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation," the EEOC says.

If you feel confident you're in the right and your employer still won't comply, the next step is to file a complaint with the EEOC, and possibly your state agency as well. You can learn more about this process at the federal commission's Web site (www.eeoc.gov/charge/overview_charge_filing.html). The EEOC received 2,532 complaints about religious discrimination in 2003 and reports that the number from Muslims has been growing since Sept. 11, 2001.

Finally, consider working for an employer who shares your beliefs. For example, all Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays, at the insistence of company founder and Chairman S. Truett Cathy, a devout Baptist. The company posted $1.53 billion in sales last year. The private, mostly family-run company's continued success makes all those Virginia business representatives who said the Sabbath law would spell economic disaster sound like a bunch of Chicken Littles.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. Aug. 13 at www.washingtonpost.com. E-mail her at slayterme@washpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company