(RNS) John Spink, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer, often observes Ash Wednesday while shooting services for the newspaper. He usually sets aside his camera, walks to the altar and feels the sensation of a finger making the blackened image of a cross.

Spink says he then returns to the office, sometimes getting quizzical looks and odd comments, such as "Excuse me, there's something on your forehead."

Many Christians will mark the start of Lent on March 1 by observing Ash Wednesday, when an ashen cross is placed on the forehead as a sign of one's sins and penance. But the day poses a dilemma at work. With office religious displays often a sensitive issue, could the ashen cross be seen as a proselytizing gesture? And if workers wipe off ashes after attending daytime services, are they somehow denying their faith?

For Spink the answers are clear. Ash Wednesday, observed by Catholics and some Protestants, is an acknowledgment of mortality -- we all return to ashes or dust -- and a call to the Lenten period of penance. Spink says he has nothing to hide, even in his newsroom.

"I'm going to be a Catholic inside the workplace and outside the workplace," said Spink, 48. "Religion is a big part of the American culture, and I think people are at least educated enough to recognize what Catholics do, what Jews do and what Muslims do."

Sometimes that isn't the case.

CNN founder Ted Turner famously called staff members "Jesus freaks" in 2001 when they wore ashen crosses to a meeting in Washington. He later apologized. In San Diego, a retirement home supervisor was fired in 1997 after forcibly removing an ashen cross from an employee's forehead with a dishcloth when the employee refused to remove it herself, said Kiera McCaffrey, spokeswoman for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. And in LaGrange, Ga., a police detective was fired and then reinstated in 1994 after wearing an ashen cross to work.

Liley Gilbert, 41, a Baptist, has attended Ash Wednesday services since she began work 12 years ago as a bookkeeper for the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. She always removes her ashen cross before returning to work, mostly because her job requires frequent trips to the bank and she grew tired of people telling her she had a smudge on her forehead.

Catholicism officially teaches that the ashen cross should be worn until it wears away naturally, but Gilbert says she has no need to advertise her faith.

"I don't feel like I'm keeping my religion a secret," said Gilbert of Jackson, Miss. "Church is personal and, like I say, not for show, not for fashion. ... People will know just by my walk, just by my talk, just by the way I live."

Legally, the issue appears to be clear. Displaying the ashen cross is a First Amendment right, no different than wearing a Jewish yarmulke at work, and it is illegal for an employer to ask that either be removed. McCaffrey of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights recommends that employees who encounter trouble contact her office.

As a matter of etiquette, there is no code of conduct to follow on Ash Wednesday, said Gayle Colquitt White, author of "Believers and Beliefs: A Practical Guide to Religious Etiquette for Business and Social Occasions." "Just do it and go about your business the way you always would and don't make a big deal out of it," she said. "And don't think if someone chooses to wipe (the cross) off because they're tired of people telling them they have a smudge on their forehead, I don't think that's a renunciation of beliefs."

In most workplaces, Ash Wednesday is a non-issue, said Sue Murphy, manager of the National Human Resources Association in Nashua, N.H. Murphy, a Catholic, has observed the day for 20 years, and most bosses have allowed flexible work hours so she and co-workers could attend daytime Masses. Some of her past co-workers removed their ashen crosses before returning to work and meetings with clients, and that's OK, too, Murphy said. Christians may share their faith by answering questions about Ash Wednesday, but use sensitivity.

"It's kind of like politics," she said. "You have your beliefs, but you don't necessarily want to convert all your co-workers to your side of the political fence."

Employees of HCA Inc., a leading health care provider in Nashville, Tenn., with 180 hospitals across the country, are free to observe the day in a way that is right for them, said Jeff Prescott, a company spokesman. Hospitals maintain their own policies for doctors and nurses.

Bethany Milburn, 26, now a stay-at-home mom of three young girls living near Charleston, S.C., always wore her ashen cross to her bank job in Lexington, Ky., before relocating two years ago with her husband, who is in the Navy. She welcomed a unique opportunity to share her faith, and customers never seemed bothered, she said.

"I think a lot of people think that Catholics, for lack of a better word, are cultish," she said. "It was just nice. You get questioned a lot about your faith when you're a Catholic, and that was just a way to bring it up without focusing on it."

Spink, the photographer, also sees the questions and puzzled looks as a workplace opportunity.

"It's quite a subtle witness of the faith," he said. "It's a community religion. The word 'Catholic' means universal. ... It's to be lived out in the open for people to see. You're supposed to show the love of Christ no matter where you are."

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