Religion does have a common ground

Sunday, August 17, 1997

Can the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Jewish Congress, People for the American Way and the Christian
Legal Society find common ground? That's exactly what happened
on August 14 when these groups and many others endorsed a presidential
directive on religious liberty in the federal workplace.

Until now, there has been a great deal of confusion
about when and how employees of the federal government may express
their faith while at work. Typical questions include: Is it legal
for me to read the Bible or other scriptures during breaks? Will
I get in trouble if I discuss religion with a fellow worker? Will
I be treated unfairly if my boss is religious but I'm an atheist?
May I be excused from work to observe a religious holiday?

The President's directive answers these and
other questions by applying First Amendment religious-liberty
principles to the federal workplace. Under the guidelines, government
employees of all faiths or none will be treated with respect and
fairness. This means that religious expression and exercise will
be permitted to the greatest extent possible.

Yes, federal workers may read their scriptures
during breaks. And no, a worker will not get into trouble for
sharing his or her faith with a co-worker. Religious expression
shouldn't be treated any differently than non-religious expression.
The guidelines say that, as long as workplace efficiency isn't
disrupted, it's fine to share religious views, invite a co-worker
to attend worship services and engage in similar activities.

Harassment or coercion, however, are prohibited.
Federal employees are protected from subjection to a hostile environment
and from religious or anti-religious ridicule by supervisors or
fellow workers. If Susan often insults John about his lack of
faith, her conduct should not be tolerated. If a group of workers
repeatedly teases Mary about her sex life because they know that
she is a conservative Muslim and will be offended by such comments,
then the agency should curtail that behavior. However, an environment
in which employees simply disagree about religion can't be defined
as “hostile.”

Under these guidelines, supervisors must be
especially careful not to discriminate against employees on the
basis of their religion, religious beliefs or views concerning
religion. Pete, the supervisor of a large federal agency, may
invite his co-workers to his church wedding. But he may not tell
an employee that he expects to see her in church next Sunday.

The guidelines also specify that federal agencies
should accommodate religious exercise by an employee “unless
such accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the conduct
of the agency's operations.” For example, Rachel, an employee
of the Labor Department, needs the day off for Yom Kippur. She
should be accommodated if her absence won't impose a heavy burden
on the department. What about Sharifa, who must wear a head scarf
for religious reasons? She should be allowed to do so as long
as her scarf doesn't interfere with the functioning of the workplace.

If four Christian co-workers want to meet for prayer in an empty
conference room during break, and other employees are allowed
to use the room during their breaks for other reasons, then the
Christians should be permitted to meet.

These guidelines achieve precisely what the
First Amendment intends: They maintain government neutrality concerning
religion while protecting the right of citizens to practice their
faith. Since the federal government is the nation's largest employer,
this is very good news for religious freedom.

As did the 1995 presidential directive on religion
in the public schools, these consensus guidelines demonstrate
that it is possible for Americans with deep religious differences
to agree on how to put the First Amendment into action.