Religious Leaders Applaud
Federal Workplace Guidelines

Guidelines on religion in the federal workplace issued (Aug. 14) by President Clinton "will change the way religious employees are treated, not just in the public work space but in the private work place as well," declared the Rev. Oliver Thomas, Special Counsel on Religious and Civil Liberties for the National Council of Churches.

"We've never had anything like this for the federal, state or private workplace," said Thomas, who was part of a broad coalition of religious and civil liberties experts who drafted the Guidelines. While the Guidelines are binding only on civilian executive branch federal government agencies, officials and employees, he said state governments easily could adapt them and that private employers could find helpful advice in them.

However, some experts expressed concern that they are already seeing a disturbing trend in state and local governments to ignore religious expression. "Now that the Supreme Court has pronounced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional," said Forest D. Montgomery, Counsel, Office for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, "some state government officials are already turning a deaf ear to legitimate free exercise requests. Instead, they should follow the President's lead. His guidelines provide that `Federal employers shall permit personal religious expression by Federal employees to the greatest extent possible.'"

The "Guidelines on Religious Freedom and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace" address issues of religious expression and accommodation of religious practices, and forbid discrimination - for example, in hiring, firing, promoting or otherwise favoring or disfavoring employees - on the basis of their religion.

"The President's Guidelines confirm that it is possible to respect both the rights of the believer and those of non- believers in the workplace," said Marc Stern, Co-Director, Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress in Washington, D.C. "It is a mark of the maturity and mutual respect of American religious institutions that they are able to endorse a set of principles respective of both sets of rights."

Federal employers are to permit employees to engage in personal religious expression, just as they permit other constitutionally valued expression, to the greatest extent possible, consistent with interests in work place efficiency and requirements of law. An exception is when a reasonable observer would be led to conclude that the government is endorsing or denigrating religion.

Further, federal agencies must reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices, such as holiday observances and religiously compelled dress. In some cases, interests in work place efficiency may take precedence over religious rights, but an agency must always try to accommodate religion to the fullest extent permissible under the law.

"Many Americans have never left their religion at the workplace door," observed Steven T. McFarland, Director Center for Law and Religious Freedom of the Christian Legal Society.

"With these guidelines the stakes are significantly reduced," McFarland said. "Religious Americans should not have to choose between their conscience and their livelihood...Federal employees may share their beliefs with their co-workers, pray together at lunch, have their Sabbath respected, invite their peers to church, and, at promotion time, not be penalized for having done so."

"What this is all about for me is fairness," Thomas said, "being fair to the worker who wants to practice his/her faith while protecting the interest of co-workers who might be of a different tradition or of no tradition. You may be the religious person you are, but not impose it on others through harassment and intimidation."

Here are some examples of "do's" and "don'ts" from the new Guidelines:

  • An employee may keep a Bible or Koran on her private desk and read it during breaks.
  • An agency may restrict all posters, or posters of a certain size, in private work areas, or require that such posters be displayed facing the employee, and not on common walls; but the employer typically cannot single out religious or anti-religious posters for harsher or preferential treatment.
  • In informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, employees are entitled to discuss their religious views with one another, subject only to the same rules of order as apply to other employee expression.
  • If an agency permits unrestricted non-religious expression of a controversial nature, it must likewise permit equally controversial religious expression. Supervisors may express their views so long as they do not take further steps to coerce agreement with their view.
  • Employees are entitled to display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages. So long as they do not convey any governmental endorsement of religion, religious messages may not typically be singled out for suppression.
  • Employees generally may wear religious jewelry or medallions over their clothes or so that they are otherwise visible. Typically, this alone will not affect workplace efficiency, and therefore is protected.
  • During a coffee break, one employee engages another in a polite discussion of why his faith should be embraced. The other employee disagrees with the first employee's religious exhortations, but does not ask that the conversation stop. Under these circumstances, agencies should not restrict or interfere with such speech.
  • One employee invites another employee to attend worship services at her church, though she knows that the invitee is a devout adherent of another faith. The invitee is shocked, and asks that the invitation not be repeated. The original invitation is protected, but the employee should honor the request that no further invitations be issued.
  • A supervisor may invite co-workers to a son's confirmation in a church, a daughter's bat mitzvah in a synagogue, or to his own wedding at a temple. BUT, a supervisor should not say to an employee, "I didn't see you in church this week. I expect to see you there this Sunday."
  • On a bulletin board on which personal notices unrelated to work regularly are permitted, a supervisor may post a flyer announcing an Easter musical service at her church, with a handwritten notice inviting co-workers to attend. BUT, a supervisor should not circulate a memo announcing that he will be leading a lunch-hour Talmud class that employees should attend in order to participate in a discussion of career advancement that will convene at the conclusion of the class.
  • An employee repeatedly makes derogatory remarks to other employees with whom she is assigned to work about their faith or lack of faith. This typically will constitute religious harassment. An agency should not tolerate such conduct.
  • Two employees have an angry exchange of words. In the heat of the moment, one makes a derogatory comment about the other's religion. When tempers cool, no more is said. Unless the words are sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the insulted employees's employment or create an abusive working environment, this is not a statutory religious harassment.
  • During lunch, certain employees gather on their own time for prayer and Bible study in an empty conference room that employees are generally free to use on a first-come, first served basis. Such a gathering does not constitute religious harassment even if other employees with different views on how to pray might feel excluded or ask that the group be disbanded.
  • An agency must adjust work schedules to accommodate an employee's religious observance - for example, Sabbath or religious holiday observance - if an adequate substitute is available, or if the employee's absence would not otherwise impose an undue burden on the agency.
  • An employee must be permitted to wear religious garb, such as a crucifix, a yarmulke, a head scarf, or hijab, if wearing such attire during the work day is part of the employee's religious practice or expression, so long as the wearing of such garb does not unduly interfere with the functioning of the work place.
  • An employee should be excused from a particular assignment if performance of that assignment would contravene the employee's religious beliefs and the agency would not suffer undue hardship in reassigning the employee to another detail.
  • A corrections officer whose religion compels him or her to wear long hair should be granted an exemption from an otherwise generally applicable hair-length policy unless denial of an exemption is the least restrictive means of preserving safety, security, discipline or other compelling interests.
  • An applicant for employment in a governmental agency who is a Jehovah's Witness should not be compelled, contrary to her religious beliefs, to take a loyalty oath whose form is religiously objectionable.

    At Christmas time, a supervisor places a wreath over the entrance to the office's main reception area. This course of conduct is permitted.

    Posted August 15, 1997
    Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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