Bringing religion into the workplace

Companies become more open to expressions of faith on the job

January 03, 2007|By Detroit Free Press

DETROIT -- Joyce Pruett doesn't see her faith as something she can hide.

She's a Christian, and Christians talk about that part of their lives freely, including at work, Pruett said.

"You can't separate who you are from your faith," said Pruett, a contractor with the Detroit office of the outplacement firm Right Management Consultants. "That's the way it's been since Christ."

She doesn't outright proselytize, but if there's an opportunity, she'll talk about her faith.

Once skittish about the idea of religion being part of people's work lives, corporate America is increasingly embracing the blending of faith and work, including large companies such as Ford Motor Co., American Airlines, AOL Inc. and Intel Corp.

"There seems to be an increasing enthusiasm for witnessing to other people," said Jeremy Gunn, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Washington.

"Part of this can be perfectly acceptable and fine and constitutional," he said. "The problem is, of course, that the workplace should not become a place where people feel uncomfortable about believing in their own religion or having their own beliefs about issues."

And while Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects freedom of religious expression, it doesn't protect those who cross the line into harassment.

"Some people might want to share it, and that's fine, but people may not want to hear it, and they must not be ostracized for that," Gunn said.

It's a movement that's playing out in a variety of ways. Church leaders are preaching to spread the word in cubicles and cafeterias. Authors are writing books about it. And a variety of legal organizations are leading charges to protect Americans' rights of religious expression.

"Employers are required to accommodate employees' religious beliefs as long as it doesn't cause an undue hardship," said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Plano, Texas. It has been at the forefront of handling cases against employers.

Detroit law firm Nemeth Burwell has begun offering seminars on the issue.

"It's not that employees are getting bolder about talking about religion at work, but they are becoming more comfortable doing it," partner Linda Burwell said. "Employees are asking for prayer groups. They're arguing that if you're giving the conference and work room to the lottery club, the knitting club or sports clubs, then you should allow us to have one, too."

Burwell says employers may have to accommodate such prayer groups.

"But you need to make sure you're not creating a hostile environment for employees who don't want to hear about it," she said.

The line between sharing faith and proselytizing is a gray one.

"One of the general principles of the Christian faith is that the Lord wants us to tell others about him, to preach the gospel to every person," said the Rev. Jimmy Hurd, minister of the nondenominational Oakland Church of Christ in Southfield, Mich. Hurd will lead a lecture series on the subject at his church next month.

Yet Hurd also knows that proselytizing often isn't welcome in the workplace and that religion shouldn't interfere with employee duties.

He says religious discussions are best suited for a lunch break or after work.

Tanisha Carter, a member of Hurd's congregation and a human resources specialist at the health care information technology firm Caretech Solutions in Troy, Mich., says she discusses her religion freely at work but knows some people might not welcome it.

"I don't hide it and I don't broadcast it," said Carter, 32, of Detroit. "Do I talk to every single employee about it? No. I make friends at work, and those are the people that I share stories with."

Some employers still see embracing such groups or particular religious faiths as too sticky an issue.

Last year, General Motors Corp. won a lawsuit filed by an employee who was not allowed to form a group based on religion.

"We don't have religious or political affinity groups because of the potentially infinite number of such groups or the divisiveness inherent in accommodating their very different views," said spokeswoman Brenda Rios.

GM does provide for people who want to practice their faith while at work, she added, such as if someone needs a private place for prayer.

The ACLU's Gunn argues that it's important to not appear biased toward employees who practice a particular faith.

"It's a problem when an employer becomes involved in making salaries or promotions contingent on a person accepting the employer's religious beliefs," Gunn said.

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