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Must bosses cater to spiritual needs?

Kathleen Pielech of Massachusetts had spent almost a decade working at a local race track when she was fired for refusing to work on Christmas.

"I was devastated," Pielech recalled. "I loved my job, and the hours I worked allowed me to spend lots of time with my children. Yet due to my single absence for religious reasons, I now found myself without a job."She told her tale Tuesday to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which is considering legislation requiring employers to accommodate their workers' religious observances or practices unless it would impose a severe hardship.

The measure would tighten an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which courts have interpreted as allowing employers to refuse to make any accommodation for their workers' religious observances if it entailed more than a minimal effort or expense.

The bill would hold employers to the same standard required under other civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

John Kalwitz of Indiana, an Orthodox Jew, lost his job with the Indiana Toll Road for refusing to work Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

"I cannot express the total disillusion, anger, resentment and disgust I felt and feel to this day," Kalwitz told the senators. "I am proud to be an American and I am proud of our Constitution, but I cannot accept or comprehend this denial of a basic right that I believe is our heritage from our founding ancestors."

The firing of Pielech and a colleague helped lead to passage of a state law that prohibits religious discrimination.

"No one should have to choose between their job and their need and desire to worship the very God who gave us our freedom," Reed said. "We need laws that are bold and unambiguous, laws that leave nothing to interpretation."