The New Jersey Senate and Assembly are examining a package of bills that would recognize and protect the religious needs of New Jersey’s residents in the workforce, nursing homes, and school systems.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer first introduced the package in the Assembly last fall and Sen. Loretta Weinberg then introduced an identical package to the Senate. The package is simultaneously under review in both houses and Schaer said he hoped it would be passed by the end of the year, to specifically protect religious rights under the law, particularly the religious rights of employees.
"The law does not provide for people being discriminated against in the workplace," said Schaer (D-36th Dist.) "The law includes every group you can imagine and rightfully so but unfortunately it does not address the needs and concerns of the religious community," said Schaer, whose district includes the city of Passaic, which has many Orthodox residents.
The package includes five bills that address religious rights in the public and private sectors.
Senate Bill ‘377 requires the state to provide alternate test dates because of days of religious observance for certain applicants seeking a state license.
Senate Bill ‘379 stipulates that a nursing home resident has the right to receive food that meets the resident’s religious dietary requirements.
Senate Bill ‘380 requires health-care representatives to make decisions for incapacitated patients in accordance with the patient’s religious beliefs.
Senate Bill ‘488 makes it illegal to discriminate against employees because of their religious practices.
Senate Bill ‘489 provides for religious accommodation regarding admission procedures at licensed health-care facilities.
Assembly Bill 351′ would require alternative testing arrangements be provided to certain students unable to attend tests at their regular administration due to religious observance.
Assembly Bill 3516 provides for religious accommodation regarding organ donations.
"They are aimed specifically at the religious community," said Schaer. "All of them affect the Jewish community but [they affect] other religious communities as well, whether they be Muslim or Christian. [The bills] are meant to address a void in the law."
"We have had a variety of concerns that have been raised over some period of time," said Weinberg (D-37th Dist.), who introduced the package in the Senate after Schaer put them forward in the Assembly. Weinberg’s district includes the heavily Orthodox communities of Teaneck and Englewood. After the mock trial team from Teaneck’s Torah Academy of Bergen County was unable to compete in a national competition last year because it fell on a Saturday, Weinberg said it became necessary legislatively to raise awareness about these types of religious issues.
"While we protect the separation of church and state we also have to protect people’s right to practice their religions," she said. "That’s what these bills are about."
Another area that would be affected is the rights of religious people who are compelled by their employers to work on religious holidays or the Sabbath, Schaer said. Bill ‘488, which would make it illegal to discriminate based on religious beliefs, would require employers to offer alternate days to their employees to work instead.
"If you work in the retail environment and put in a traditional five-day workweek and one of those days is Saturday, and for religious reasons you’re not able to work on Saturday," Schaer explained, "your employer would offer you an alternative so you would still fulfill your obligation to work five days a week."
However, there may be occasions when an employee cannot work on that alternative day. Under those circumstances, the employee would not be obligated to work but would not be paid for the missed day.
"The employee would not be told he could not have the job," Schaer said. "He would have to be accommodated."
The bill would have universal applicability in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, he added. Although the bills address religious needs in nursing homes, they do not include hospitals since, Schaer said, they almost universally provide for religious needs like kosher food. As the bills progress, however, additions will be made if further needs are discovered, he said.
"Those [specific needs mentioned in the bills] are among the most obvious concerns we’re facing," he said. "I’m sure there are other things that will come up. These are very real concerns right now."
Federal law does not provide for similar accommodations, but Schaer, who is in his first term as a member of the Assembly, said that it is not unusual for individual states to take action and federal legislators then follow suit.
"First thing’s first, and that is to put New Jersey’s house in order," Schaer said.
Under the First Amendment people can go to court to pursue the religious accommodations the bill package seeks, but there is nothing in law that specifically mandates them, Weinberg said.
"This becomes an attempt to clarify these issues so people don’t have to go to court," she said.
This package is not the first foray into Jewish interest bills for either legislator. Weinberg recently cosponsored a state Senate bill commending New Jersey’s investment board for investing in Israel Bonds and urging the continuance of such investments, while Schaer is also the primary sponsor of an Assembly bill that condemns recent terror attacks on the State of Israel; holds terrorists and their state-sponsors accountable; and supports Israel’s right to defend itself.
As for this package, Schaer is optimistic about the bills passing and firm about their necessity.
"It is long overdue," he said. "It is a further attempt for New Jersey to recognize its diversity and to make sure people’s religious needs are met."