Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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Legislators Should Clarify Day of Rest Laws
The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), July 13, 2004, p. B1

The General Assembly will meet in special session today to address what the press has dubbed Virginia's "day-of-rest snafu." These laws are far from perfect and clearly need to be amended. How they should be amended is another question altogether.

For one thing, the discussion of the law has largely ignored one important issue: what employers should do to accommodate employees' religious beliefs.

If the law remains unchanged, each employee gets to choose whether to ask for a day of rest each week, be it Sunday, Saturday or some other day. But even without the industry exceptions to the law, which were eliminated unintentionally during the regular legislative session, the likelihood is that few hourly or management workers will demand their day of rest over employer objections.

Most hourly workers like to earn overtime pay, which they are entitled to under federal law any time they work more than 40 hours in a work week. Any employer who wants to avoid paying overtime will find it in his or her interest to comply with the day-of-rest law.

Managers and salaried professionals aren't usually entitled to overtime pay, but they are still unlikely to demand a day of rest if it would be contrary to the work ethic or environment in their company.

Every employer in Virginia with more than 15 employees is already subject to the religious accommodation requirements of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And Virginia employers with more than five and fewer than 15 employees are prohibited by state law from discharging any person on the basis of religion.

Under Title VII, an employer must accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee or an applicant unless it imposes an "undue hardship" on the employer's business. Such accommodation could well include granting an employee's request for a day off each week for religious observance.

Under the Virginia law, no business with more than five employees can fire someone simply for refusing to work on a particular day because of religious beliefs.

The existence of these other protections for religious free exercise does not mean, however, that there isn't a reason to amend Virginia's day-of-rest laws.

An important reason to do so is that the day-of-rest laws now in effect treat workers differently based on religious belief or practice, and they treat religious people differently based on their employment status.

As of July 1, every employee in Virginia is entitled to ask for and receive one day off each week; however, only "nonmanagerial" employees can demand Saturday or Sunday off. Nonmanagerial Christian workers who celebrate Sunday as their Sabbath have an absolute right to request and receive Sunday as their day off.

Nonmanagerial Seventh Day Adventist or Jewish workers can get Saturday off, but only by providing written notice to their employer that they "conscientiously" believe that the seventh day of the week ought to be observed as a Sabbath and that they actually "refrain from all secular business and labor on that day."

Muslims who observe the Sabbath on Friday, however, have no right to get that day off, and no manager has any right under state law to accommodate their religious beliefs in scheduling their days of rest.

Whatever amendments are made today to repair the Virginia law, this disparate treatment of religious employees based on status or belief should not be continued.

At the same time, however, the legislature should be careful not to make changes in the law that will take away what protection of religious free exercise is now afforded by the state law .

Let's celebrate the 40th anniversary of the federal Civil Rights Act by ensuring that all employees in Virginia have the same right to reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs in the workplace .

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