With Americans putting in a month more time on the job than they did a decade ago, business ethicist Laura Nash of Harvard Divinity School says it's not surprising to find such personal concerns as spirituality and religion spilling over into the workplace.

The trend argues for tolerance, she says, rather than being cast as "a question of absolute rights."

Religious bias ranks with race, sex, and age discrimination as forbidden workplace behavior under federal civil rights law, and reports of religious discrimination are on the rise: Some 1,811 complaints were filed in fiscal 1999 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, compared with 1,386 in 1992, a 30 percent increase.

Complaints range from being ordered to attend weekly religious services to being disciplined for preaching to co-workers to employers' refusals to accommodate worker religious beliefs.

Five years ago, the E.E.O.C. backed off plans for formalizing workplace guidelines on what sort of religious expression is acceptable on the job after religious adherents complained the guidelines were too strict and atheists found the rules too lenient.

In 1997, however, President Clinton announced a "workplace religion policy" for federal workers which lets them have "religious conversations" on the job if their actions aren't disruptive and they don't "offend" fellow employees and others.

The rules permit reading the Bible, Koran, or other religious book during a break. They also allow government employees to ask a co-worker to a religious service and to wear religious attire such as a cross or skullcap.

The federal rules also make it unacceptable for a government supervisor to tell his subordinates he expects to see them in church, or for religion to figure into raises and promotions.

First Amendment protection of religious expression and practice applies in the private sector too.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, notes that the Supreme Court has required employers to make "reasonable accommodation" for a worker's sincerely held beliefs so long as the employer is not unduly burdened.

Sekulow's checklist for other workplace rights says workers can:

  • Keep a Bible or other religious book on their desk to read during breaks.
  • Discuss their religious views, subject to the same rules of order that apply to other employee personal expression.
  • Wear religious jewelry. They can also display a religious message on clothing to the same extent other personal messages can be displayed.
  • Ask a co-worker to a religious service.

Lewis Maltby, head of the liberal National Work Rights Institute, agrees that workers have every reason and right to bring their beliefs to work, so long as people have the "good manners" to know others bring along their values too.

"After all," Maltby says, "if you can talk about sports or politics on the job, why can't you talk about something really important, like what you believe?"

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad