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The Right Way to Accommodate Religion at Work

How should religion be treated in the federal workplace? That question has plagued the United States government for years.

Proposed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations (later withdrawn) banned religious speech and activities that were "offensive" to co-workers. Good intentions notwithstanding, the regulations were tantamount to censorship of religious speech. One IRS office even prohibited an employee from displaying a religious calendar in his private work space.

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Fairness and respect

Now those days are ending. A sitting president has acknowledged that the federal workplace is not a religion-free zone. Government workers bring their religion with them to their jobs. And why not? To secure the rights of federal workers, the Clinton administration last week issued guidelines on religion in the federal workplace. This will go a long way toward ensuring that people of all faiths - or no faith - are treated with fairness and respect.

The guidelines clarify that workers have the right to engage in religious speech and activities to the same extent that they can engage in secular speech and activities. One employee can invite another to attend his or her house of worship. A group of employees can pray together during their lunch break. Bibles and other sacred texts can be brought to work and read during an employee's free time.

In most cases, religious garb and jewelry can be worn. A spirited discussion of religious viewpoints can be held around the water cooler. A supervisor can invite her staff to her child's baptism or bar mitzvah as long as she doesn't use coercion, suggesting that attendance will affect an employee's status at work, for example.

But the guidelines don't give carte blanche to every religious claimant. There must be sensible limits. In the federal workplace, there should be no religious harassment nor anything that would interfere with the operation of the government.

There is also the constraint imposed by the First Amendment: Federal employees may not engage in speech or activities that would lead a casual observer to conclude that the government was endorsing or denigrating religion. And, of course, the government may not discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring, firing, supervising, or compensating employees.

The guidelines offer useful examples of the type of conduct that is prohibited: A supervisor may not say to an employee: "I didn't see you in church this week. I expect to see you there Sunday!" A supervisor who is an atheist may not suggest that only those who share his views can be trusted with the public weal. And an employee may not repeatedly make derogatory remarks to others about their faith or lack of faith.

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The guidelines also make suggestions about ways to accommodate the beliefs and practices of employees without creating a hardship for other employees or the government.

Aside from the specific dos and don'ts, we admire the generous spirit of the guidelines as reflected in this provision: "Federal employers shall permit personal religious expression by employees to the greatest extent permissible." Thomas Jefferson - author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom - would be pleased with the work of his namesake, William Jefferson Clinton.

Although the guidelines apply only to the federal government, their impact will be felt beyond the beltway. State governments can use them as a model. So can private employers who, unlike the government, are free of the Constitution's prohibition against promoting religion. While private employers are prohibited from harassing or discriminating against their employees on the basis of religion, there is no reason for employers to censor or even discourage religious speech.

The right kind of dialogue

President Clinton should be commended for the substance of the guidelines and for the process that produced them. Input was solicited from a broad spectrum of groups, from People For the American Way to the Christian Legal Society. This sort of dialogue is exactly what the White House should be facilitating. Only when Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice is invited to sit alongside the American Civil Liberties Union can all Americans feel confident about the policies and practices of their government.

The guidelines on religion in the federal workplace are an encouraging sign that people of goodwill can work together for the common good.

* The Rev. Oliver Thomas is special counsel for religious and civil liberties at the National Council of Churches, and Forest D. Montgomery is counsel for the Office for Governmental Affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals.

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