A diverse group of national religious and public policy organizations have responded positively to a proposed rule recently issued by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regarding religious accommodation in the federal workplace. The rule is based on to the “Compensatory Time Off for Religious Observances” statute. Large numbers of Orthodox Jews who are federal employees have been beneficiaries of the provision, commonly referred to as the “religious comp time” law.
“What the federal government — the nation’s largest employer — does in this area cannot be overstated,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel of America’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director, who was the primary drafter of the comments and a leader in the effort. “It is a role model and standard-bearer in making ‘religious accommodation’ an important principle in federal and state law.”
In 2005, OPM proposed regulations that were deemed unworkable by many religious groups. If adopted, one requirement would have been that employees taking off for religious holidays would have to make up the time within a six week period. This mandate would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Jewish employees, who report that it normally takes several months — sometimes longer — to make up the time taken for the Yamim Tovim and other religious observances.
Moreover, the 2005 proposal required federal employees wishing to earn “religious comp time” to present supervisors with unspecified “written documentation” to help them ensure the “legitimacy” of the observance and the need to take time off from work. A number of groups objected strongly at the time to this requirement, pointing out that it was vague and that religious determinations of this type went beyond the scope of their duties, and was prohibited by the Constitution.
Several months ago, OPM released a revised rule. This time, 20 groups, Agudath Israel and many others, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have joined together to express support for the new proposal.
With OPM’s changes, federal employees seeking “religious comp time” would have up to a full year before and after a religious observance to make up the time taken off. Part-time employees are also included in the revised proposal.
“There is no question that, although it was eight long years in the making, this is a significant step forward that will allow federal employees to utilize ‘religious comp time’ with greater ease and flexibility,” Rabbi Cohen concluded. “This will ultimately strengthen the law and the protection it provides.”