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