Agudath Israel, Other National Groups Praise Proposal on Religious Observance for Federal Workers


agudah_logoA diverse group of national religious and public policy organizations have in formal comments responded positively to a proposed rule recently issued by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regarding religious accommodation in the federal workplace. The rule relates to the “Compensatory Time Off for Religious Observances” statute, which has helped many thousands of federal employees celebrate religious holidays and other observances. Large numbers of Orthodox Jews 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, for example, 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 High Holydays, Passover and major festivals, and other religious observances.

Moreover, the 2005 proposal required federal employees wishing to earn “religious comp time” to present supervisors with unspecified “written documentation” regarding religious holidays 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 the requirement was vague and that religious determinations of this type went beyond the legal scope of their duties and was prohibited by the Constitution.

Several months ago, finding the arguments expressed eight years earlier to be “persuasive,” OPM released a revised rule. This time, 20 groups – comprising numerous faiths and various political persuasions, including, in the Jewish community, in addition to Agudath Israel, American Jewish Committee, American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, National Council of Jewish Women, National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism,  and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America — joined together to express support in formal comments for the new proposal.

With OPM’s changes, federal employees seeking “religious comp time” would have up to a full year prior to, and after, a religious observance to make up the time taken off. Furthermore, the new rule would require specific, objective information (e.g. dates and times) about the religious observance that is neither intended nor conducive for supervisors to determine its “legitimacy.” Other improvements, such as the inclusion of part-time employees, are also included in the revised proposal.

As inconsistencies between agencies has sometimes plagued implementation, the groups further praised OPM for bringing greater uniformity and consistency to the requirements and procedures of the law. Suggestions for clarifying language to make the program stronger — particularly in the areas of overtime and schedule adjustments — were also made by the groups.

“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.”