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Religious Rights

By Mike Causey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 1997; Page B02

Is the new freedom of religion policy for federal agencies the solution to a problem, or a solution in search of a problem?

Last month's White House directive says federal workers can display religious artwork or wear religious symbols on the job. And they can invite colleagues to religious services. It also says federal agencies must accommodate individual employees' religious observations unless doing so would be disruptive or cause workload problems.

All of the above, in most cases, have been standard operating procedure in government for years.

The directive does break new ground, however, in saying agencies must provide space -- such as cafeterias -- where employees can conduct religious services. A number of people called and asked what, if anything, is going on.

A recently retired personnel director, who asked not to be identified, said: "This sounds like a `sounds good' policy that may very well open up a can of worms nobody anticipated or wants. For instances, what kind of religious services? And when? And for how long? And how often?"

He said he had never heard of an employee who was reprimanded or punished for wearing a cross, Star of David or other religious symbol. "I'm sure there were times when people wore other religious symbols that most of us didn't even know were religious in nature. It has not been a problem," he said.

"Where we drew the line . . . was where religious articles or artwork were displayed by employees who dealt directly with the public, or in one-on-one sessions with individuals" who might have been "put off or intimidated" by such displays.

He wondered, for example, how someone of one faith might feel about being audited by an IRS agent who displayed the symbol of a "hostile" religion. How might it be perceived if the agent "makes his or her religious belief part of his persona . . . as part of a perceived in-your-face" statement to the taxpayer of another faith? A policy change "isn't going to make a religious zealot or bigot `get better,' " he said.

Another personnel director, with 24 years of service in four agencies, said of the new policy: "This is just what I've always wanted. Another solution in search of a problem. In all the years, I have never encountered a serious, and I emphasize serious, problem that this policy addresses. I think most people understand that discrimination, or religious arm-twisting, are illegal. A good thing it might do is tell officials who have been wary about providing space for observances that it is okay. It does clarify that. Otherwise, I think the White House was having a slow August day and decided to put out a feels-good press release."

Early-Out Penalty

There have been lots of calls from workers asking about a Defense Department proposal to halve the so-called penalty for taking early retirement. Currently, workers under the Civil Service Retirement System take a 2 percent reduction in annuity for each year they are younger than 55. Many employees say they have resisted early-out offers because of the annuity reduction.

Opponents of the early-out penalty took heart from a report here in June. It noted that the pending Defense Reform Act would have reduced the early-out penalty to 1 percent per year under age 55 for Defense workers in acquisition jobs taking early retirement. But the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee persuaded the National Security Committee to drop the provision. It did, meaning the idea of a reduced early-out penalty is dead at least for this year.

Many retirement experts don't consider the 2 percent reduction that big a financial deal. Nor do they consider it a penalty. They point out that in many private-sector companies, employees take a pension reduction of 5 percent or more for each year they are younger than age 65.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.

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