When Attorney General John Ashcroft began conducting daily prayer sessions with
Justice Department employees, he confirmed the hopes of religious conservatives
and the fears of secularists: The new Republican regime would make government
Ashcroft has loudly lamented the separation of church and state and has
advocated government funding for religious groups, as well as the reintroduction
of official prayer into public schools. Now he's organizing prayer in the public
workplace. According to a May 14 report in The Washington Post, Ashcroft and a
group of employees meet at 8:00 a.m. in his personal office or a conference room
to pray and study scripture.
Ashcroft's daily devotionals are said to be ecumenical, despite periodic
references to Jesus, and they are open to all employees. (His supporters boast
that one regular attendee is an Orthodox Jew.) No one is required to attend; but
according to the Post, some Justice Department employees are uneasy about the
prayer meetings and concerned that participation or nonparticipation in them
could affect their career prospects. Some are offended by the use of a government
workplace for sectarian religious activities.
Of course, Ashcroft has his own First Amendment right to pray at work that
demands respect. Advocates of public religiosity correctly point out that
religious beliefs are not neatly compartmentalized; people naturally take their
religions with them into the workplace (or voting booth). Federal law rightly
requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for religious expression
by employees. But "reasonableness" is a rather elastic concept that generates a
lot of litigation.
Questions about religion in the workplace are not new to employment lawyers,
regulatory agencies, or courts. The religious revivalism of the 1990s gave public
expressions of religious belief renewed respectability; it's not surprising that
the past decade saw an increase in discrimination claims involving employers'
alleged failures to accommodate their employees' religious practices.
Religious-discrimination claims before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission increased 43 percent between 1991 and 1997.
It is no small irony that these cases sometimes reflected efforts by employers
to regulate the religious expressions of some employees in deference to the
beliefs of others. Increased sensitivity to harassment was both a blessing and a
curse to employees anxious to practice their religion at work. Lule Said, a
Muslim man in Massachusetts who was targeted by fellow employees for praying at
work, recently won a harassment claim against his employer. But in a 1995
Nebraska case, Wilson v. U.S. West, a federal appeals court ruled against
an employee, Christine Wilson, who claimed a religious right to wear an
anti-abortion button featuring a color photo of a fetus that upset her
co-workers, including some who shared her opposition to abortion rights.
Offended co-workers complained that the button constituted harassment, and Wilson
conceded that it caused serious disruption at work. The federal court upheld U.S.
West's efforts to accommodate Wilson's religious beliefs by giving her the option
of wearing an anti-abortion button with no pictures or wearing the pictorial
button in her own little cubicle and covering it at other times. In another 1995
case, Brown v. Polk County, however, the same court upheld the right of a
devout Christian employee, Isaiah Brown, to conduct prayer sessions in a
government workplace. His employer, Polk County, Iowa, claimed that the prayers
could cause resentment and religious divisiveness but presented no evidence that
they had actually done so.
As these cases make clear, the line between the right to express religious
beliefs at work and the power to impose those beliefs on others is often in
dispute, especially in a culture suspicious of First Amendment rights--a culture
that sometimes values inoffensiveness as much as self-expression. The rights of
employees to wear or display religious paraphernalia or pray at work should
generally prevail over the sensibilities of colleagues. Employers' concerns about
the divisiveness of sectarian rituals are not unfounded, but people ought to
tolerate the religious practices of their co-workers.
They should, however, be spared the religious enthusiasms of their
supervisors, which are apt to be inherently coercive. Indeed, federal guidelines
on religion in the federal workplace stress that supervisors need to express
their own religious beliefs with great care in order to avoid even misperceptions
of coercion. The attorney general is violating the spirit if not the letter of
these guidelines, his critics claim. He may have a legal right to conduct
morning prayer sessions, but it should be exercised with regard for his
authority over some 135,000 Justice Department employees, not to mention his
power to set policy for the nation. As conservatives often point out, you lose
your moral claim to exercise a right when you exercise it irresponsibly.
In any case, Ashcroft has limited credibility as a champion of religious
freedom. He aggressively supports the right of publicly funded religious groups
to limit the religious practices of their employees and even to hire and fire on
the basis of belief. Under the 1996 charitable-choice bill introduced by
then-Senator Ashcroft (and incorporated into the welfare reform law), religious
groups that receive federal funds to deliver social services are exempt from
federal law prohibiting religious discrimination in employment. In other words,
the attorney general supports the right of Christian employers who receive public
funds to hire only Christians or to prohibit Muslim employees from praying at
work or merely wearing head scarves. Ashcroft may read scripture every morning,
but he doesn't seem to know the Golden Rule.