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Oregon Governor Signs Workplace Religious Freedom Act

Oregon Governor Signs Workplace Religious Freedom Act

On a sweltering Friday summer evening, and just two minutes prior to going on stage before 2,000 Christians at the Gladstone, Oregon Campmeeting, the Honorable Representative Dave Hunt (D), Speaker of the House of Representatives for the Oregon Legislature, informed the president and staff of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association that Governor Ted Kulongoski had signed Senate Bill 786, the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act, the day before, on Thursday, July 16, 2009.
StageWasSetThis was like music to our ears, as naysayers who did not fully understand the nature of the bill had been publicly urging the governor to veto it.
After this surprising announcement, the lobbying team of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA), represented by Greg Hamilton (its president), Doug Clayville (pastor of the Dallas and Fall City church district located just west of Salem, and vice president for the Oregon chapter of NRLA), and Rhonda Bolton (administrative assistant), were in a state of euphoric shock as they quickly processed this information while walking on stage to honor and thank the Speaker for his sponsorship of our bill.
Dave Hunt Publicly Recognized as a Champion of Religious FreedomGreg Hamilton thanked the Speaker for his faithful diligence in championing religious freedom for all people of faith in Oregon, including Seventh-day Adventist Christians, by giving him a plaque with the symbol of the torch of religious freedom. He also praised Representative Hunt “for championing such a noble cause in the State of Oregon” and for “your foresight and leadership in making the Oregon bill the potential model for both state and federal Workplace Religious Freedom Acts.”
DaveHuntHunt, who represents the Gladstone District, District 40, accepted our well-deserved praise and our gift honoring his efforts. He then praised the energetic and professional lobbying efforts of NRLA to get the bill passed, and thanked Seventh-day Adventists for supporting it. The crowd was energized with loud applauses throughout his “thank you” speech, particularly as he stated that we still have a lot to do in shoring up the free exercise of religion in Oregon, and that workplace religious freedom was just the beginning of his efforts in concert with NRLA.
Many in the audience were not aware that Representative Hunt once served as President of the American Baptist Churches USA. At the start of Oregon’s 2009 Legislative Session he established a Biblical theme for all of his colleagues in the House to follow: of sharpening swords into plowshares. Every day—as he did on this night—he wore a metal pin of a plow on the lapel of his suit coat as a reminder to his colleagues. He gave a pin to each member, both Republicans and Democrats.
Legislative HistoryThe Northwest Religious Liberty Association has had a close working relationship with Representative Hunt since the 2003 legislative session when they worked together on the Oregon Religious Freedom Act, which focused on restoring the “compelling state interest” and “least restrictive means” constitutional tests for the free exercise of religion in Oregon.
But that bill effort kept coming up short. So Representative Hunt, in consultation with NRLA, and others, came up with the idea in 2005 of initiating the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which affects Title VII Law involving civil rights and religious discrimination in the workplace.

Originally started in the House as HB 3539 during the 2007 legislative session, and reintroduced in 2009 as SB 786, this Act sought to change the definition of a business “undue hardship” for employees seeking “holy day” and “religious apparel” accommodations in the workplace and employers whose litigations costs rose in correlation with the increase in the number of minority faith group members and the number of religious discrimination claims being filed against them. This legislative Act, therefore, helps all people of faith, including religious minorities.

LegislativeHistoryFrom the vantage point of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, the approximately one hundred and fifty individuals that seek out its workplace mediation services each year, the evidence is clear that people of faith in the workplace too often confront impossible conflicts between their employment and their religious convictions.

Understanding the Specifics

What this Act does is clarify the responsibility of employers to accommodate the scheduling of leave time for the observation of religious holy days, or for the wearing of religious apparel in the workplace unless it poses a “significant difficulty or expense” to their business(es).

More specifically, it restores the original federal Title VII legal standard involving religious discrimination which obligated employers to demonstrate that they reasonably attempted to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of their employees before claiming that such beliefs and practices posed a “significant difficulty” and “expense” for their business(es).

It also defines “undue hardship” more coherently.

In January 2008, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) encouraged employers, in an official Title VII religious discrimination guideline, to document how and why a religious accommodation posed an “undue” business “hardship.” But this guideline is just that, only a guideline, and thus unenforceable. While the guideline is a helpful encouragement to employers, previous Oregon law provided employers with little basis for defending the decision to accommodate or to deny accommodation. As a result, employers often waved the claim of “undue hardship” like a magic wand without having to 1) define, explain, or demonstrate what that “undue hardship” was to the employee, or 2) how it really adversely affected their business in administrative terms, or in dollars and cents.
Some employers have regularly defined “undue hardship” as anything that caused a business “inconvenience,” and have used it as a false legal pretext to refuse, as a matter of policy, to accom-modate religious requests. A few unfortunate Supreme Court decisions, beginning with TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977), reduced the definition of “undue hardship” to a “de minimis” or “mini-mal cost” standard in favor of the employer. As a result, this significantly placed people of faith at a disadvantage in the workplace and created unnecessary unemployment hardships for them. That is why the new law signed by Governor Kulongoski defines “undue hardship” as a “significant difficulty” and “expense” and will help relieve employers of so many discrimination claims against them.
The Successful AftermathSenate Bill 786 passed the Oregon Senate by a 63% percent vote on May 5 and by a 66% percent vote in the Oregon House of Representatives on May 29. Despite some controversy surrounding the bill in the last several days, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed the bill July 16, 2009.
Representative Hunt left us a signed copy of the bill from the Governor’s Office which will be displayed at our Northwest Adventist Headquarters in Ridgefield, Washington.
We are, of course, thrilled and exhausted. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association team—along with the invaluable and timely assistance of attorney Michael Peabody, and the Senate Judiciary Committee testimonies of David Miller and Shani Balverio—put every professional effort possible toward a successful end. We did it for “you.”Thanks for your ongoing prayers and support. It was much appreciated.The most appropriate summary is that God is gracious, God is good.

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.