Shabbat observers welcome new laws

Shabbat observers welcome new laws

Shabbat-observant Jews who find themselves hospitalized on Saturdays will now be able to keep the Sabbath and fill out admission paperwork after sunset, thanks to a new bill signed into law last week.

Gov. Corzine signed two religious-themed bills that were part of a seven-bill package pushed by North Jersey legislators to promote religious diversity in the state. The bills are meant to provide accommodations and protections for religious observance across the private and public sectors, according to the package’s sponsors.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-dist. 36) authored the bills in the Assembly in the spring, and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-dist. 37) introduced them in the Senate soon after. The new laws are an important step forward for New Jersey, Schaer said.

The first bill guarantees alternate testing dates for applicants seeking a state-issued license when the test date conflicts with a religious observance. The second bill provides religious accommodation to patients when entering a licensed health-care facility.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg

"The governor supported and signed this bill because it responsibly addresses situations where religious observance may prevent a person from signing hospital admission papers on a particular date," said Gloria Montealegre, spokesperson for Gov. Corzine.

Although life-threatening situations can override Shabbat observance, not all hospital visits are immediately life-threatening, Schaer said. This bill allows the patient to avoid making a decision to break the Sabbath.

"It simply makes it easier for people, and I think that’s a positive thing," Schaer said. "It’s one less decision that one has to make in a difficult and trying situation."

Asked how often these cases came up to require legislation, Schaer answered, "If it’s once, it’s enough."

"Clearly there are many faith communities which have certain needs," he said. "Those needs have not been met. New Jersey prides itself — and rightfully so — on its diversity. This is one more way New Jersey can reaffirm the importance of diversity in the state, not only racially and ethnically, but religiously as well."

Schaer hopes that the lame-duck legislature will pass one more bill from the package before the end of the session. The bill in question would require employers to accommodate employees who choose not to work on their holy days. For example, if a Shabbat-observant retail store employee was asked to work on a Friday night or Saturday and refused on religious grounds, the employer would be required to provide an alternate date for that employee to work.

For Linda and Stanley Rutta of Englewood, this bill is long overdue.

Stanley Rutta works for a Netherlands-based computer company that services the retail industry. Two weeks ago he received a memo about vacation time in ‘008. The company defined the start of the retail season in October, and accordingly no requests for vacations between Oct. 15 and Dec. 14 would be approved. Sukkot begins on Oct. 14 and is followed by Shemini Atzeret.

Three vacation days would be offered to employees before Oct. 15 or after Dec. 14, according to the memo. If Schaer and Weinberg’s bill becomes law, Rutta’s company would have to allow him to take off on the holidays.

"This legislation is very significant and long overdue," said Linda Rutta. "They’re planning the retail season in October. Because of that stretch it’s affecting us more."

More companies require weekend hours now than they did 30 years ago, when her husband began working, Rutta said. This requirement has kept her husband from advancement because he won’t work on Saturdays or Friday afternoons, while recruiters ignore applications from people who say they won’t be available on weekends, she said.

"You have to go begging to get your holidays off," Rutta said. "It has become onerous. and we need federal protection for the wage-earners."

New Jersey has not been as accommodating to religious needs as it should be, Weinberg said.

Her interest in the legal protection of religious observance was sparked as a result of the Torah Academy of Bergen County Mock Trial Club. In ‘005 the team found itself unable to compete in a national competition because it conflicted with Shabbat. In the end, the National High School Mock Trial Championship board of directors made special arrangements so TABC could compete but then said the board would not make any future accommodations. To protest that decision, the New Jersey Bar Association and the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers created a separate competition that did not conflict with weekend religious observance.

"Our environment was so unaccommodating," Weinberg said of the incident. "It was those kinds of issues that we’re attempting to call attention to in this legislation, to remind people that they have to be accommodating."

Other measures in the package would require New Jersey colleges and universities to accommodate students whose religious obligations prevent participation in testing that falls on holidays.

Schaer was hopeful that this bill would pass within the first two quarters of next year.

The package includes two other bills that would affect the state’s health-care governance. One ensures nursing home residents the right to receive food in line with their religious dietary laws, such as kosher or halal. The second bill ensures that doctors make their medical decisions — end of life issues, for example — in accordance with the patient’s religious beliefs.

Those bills still require work before they pass out of the legislature, Schaer said. The assemblyman was hopeful that they would all pass by the end of ‘008, though.

"It’s an important recognition of the role all faith communities play in our state," he said. "We’re excited by the bills and very gratified."

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