Our cover story on Chaplain Wes Modder is a good reminder that religious freedom requires diligent protection, and Americans don’t give up their religious freedom when they join the workforce.
There are four types of religious freedom protections every citizen enjoys in the workplace, to some degree:
Constitutional rights, most notably those provided by the First Amendment. The First Amendment specifically protects the freedom of religion: Many employment disputes involving religious liberty are prompted by employees’ religious speech, and the First Amendment covers both.
Statutory protections, such as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (duplicated in over 20 states) which provides general protections in the most severe cases of government infringement of religion, which could arise in government employment situations.
Federal and state non-discrimination laws offer protections in cases of government infringement of religion in the workplace. Typically, laws like the federal Title VII employment statute (and its state counterparts) prohibit most employers from discriminating on the basis of religion. This law also gives workers the right to ask for a “reasonable accommodation” of their religious exercise (such as time off to attend a religious observance), but the employer can say no if it negatively impacts the workplace more than minimally.
Federal and state conscience laws that grant certain government employees the right to invoke conscience exemptions and be excused from having to do certain tasks, such as performing abortions.
However, who you work for can impact your religious freedom.
Private employers. Since the First Amendment targets and restricts government actions, private employers may favor speech they like (such as encouraging diversity and eliminating harassment), and disfavor speech they don’t like (such as religious speech on company bulletin boards). Employees do not have the same rights to free speech that they have in the public square, and must tread carefully.
The military. Members of the military (including chaplains) enjoy the entire panoply of religious-freedom rights, but those can be restricted in order to maintain discipline, unit cohesion and combat readiness. In recent years, the increased friction between homosexuality and religious freedom has generated many high-profile cases of discrimination similar to Modder’s.
Public schools. Teachers’ religious rights can vary depending on their role at any given time—as individuals, employees or government representatives. As individuals, teachers have all the rights as other Americans when it comes to activities like reading a Bible before or after school. However, as employees, they must stay within the bounds of their assigned duties and leave religion out of the classroom, unless the curriculum warrants its inclusion in some way. And as government representatives interacting with students, teachers must be cautious not to initiate religious discussions with students or lead in prayer, which could be construed as a government endorsement of religion. This is a very complicated area and the subject of numerous court cases every year.
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Originally published in the March 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.