EEOC dilemma: Harassment or free speech?


June 22, 1994|By Patricia Willens and Julia Angwin | Patricia Willens and Julia Angwin,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Wearing a cross or a yarmulke to the federal workplace could be OK, but not displaying a coffee mug with a swastika on it, according to proposed regulations aimed at preventing workplace harassment being prepared by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The proposals that address harassment based on a worker's religious beliefs have raised the ire of Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., who is leading the fight against them in the Senate.

In a 94-0 vote last week, the Senate passed Mr. Heflin's resolution asking the EEOC to withdraw that category of regulations proposed last year.

According to the nonbinding resolution, any new guidelines must be less vague and make the point that expression of religious belief, or the presence of religious symbols, may not be the sole basis of a harassment complaint.

Mr. Heflin said EEOC officials are amenable to altering the guidelines to avoid what he fears most -- the creation of a workplace atmosphere where people's constitutional right to express themselves would be severely stifled. "How far do you go?" Mr. Heflin asked.

Mr. Heflin and Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., co-sponsored the resolution to make the point that religious ideas are different from the other categories of EEOC guidelines, including age, race and gender.

"I think certain guidelines should be put in place and then I think there ought to be a separate procedure followed because [religion] is distinct," Mr. Heflin said.

The guidelines on religion proposed in October caused a minor uproar among civil liberty and various religious groups, especially those representing the conservative Christian movement. The EEOC received almost 100,000 comments during its public comment period.

Mr. Brown said he did not like the climate the guidelines threatened to create, where people may not have a Bible on their desk at work or may not invite a colleague to church.

"A nude picture on the wall is different than wearing a cross around your neck," he said earlier this month.

If the proposed regulations were issued, Mr. Brown predicted employers would opt for overly cautious policies out of fear of lawsuits.

"My major concern is that the attitude of political correctness not be given the sanctity of law," he said.

Mr. Brown said the proposed guidelines are vague enough to allow the possibility of restricting religious expression.

Defenders of the regulations admit the draft language is sloppy, but say the final version will address Mr. Brown's concerns when it is released in a few months.

"There's always an issue in harassment about the line between harassment and free expression," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director at People For the American Way. "I agree that the original guidelines weren't careful enough to express that line."

However, he said, "the idea of withdrawing religious guidelines really is just throwing the baby out with the bath water."

The guidelines are nonbinding and simply offer employers a framework based on legal precedents in harassment cases.

The regulations define harassment as conduct that "denigrates or shows hostility or aversion" to someone based on religion, race, color, gender, national origin, age or disability.

Behavior would be illegal if it created an intimidating, offensive or hostile work environment, or interfered with someone's work or career advancement.

The commission contends these regulations would protect religious freedom, not oppress it. For example, the EEOC has sued employers in the past for prohibiting people from wearing a yarmulke or a Sikh headdress.

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