While spreading the Gospel message should be a priority, we must consider social and legal implications of sharing our faith at work.
Most workers in North America have a great deal of legal freedom when it comes to sharing our faith. In fact, many countries have statements on religious freedom that can protect workers in regard to sharing their faith. Federal workers in the United States, for instance, are protected by the Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace released by the White House in August 1997 and updated in a document issued by the Attorney General of the United States in 2017. Most U.S. employees of for-profit companies are protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which says employers may not discriminate on the basis of our race, gender, or religion.
Knowing pertinent laws and their application in regard to religious freedom in the workplace is essential when we are challenged for sharing our faith or displaying symbols of our faith in the workplace. This knowledge is helpful in regard to schools, as well. Equal access rulings in public schools address whether religious clubs in schools are allowed parallel rights and privileges to non-religious clubs.
Case Study: A Nurse Named JoAnn
JoAnn wouldn’t have expected a chance to witness while she was out and about on her job as a nurse, but sometimes you can’t ignore an open door. One day, she was on a home visit with an AIDS patient. The patient and his partner started talking about the life and death issues they faced, including questions about the afterlife. JoAnn, with their permission, began to tell them how they could know they were going to heaven. The men thanked her and truly seemed grateful for her words.
JoAnn’s boss, however, gave her an official reprimand. She was suspended for four weeks without pay for misconduct, and her home visit duties were restricted. Soon, JoAnn also faced a lawsuit, because the men said her visit left them in emotional turmoil.
Case Study: Leroy and Marcus
Leroy and Marcus were not quite as direct as JoAnn. They were employees of a company that provided cafeteria food service at a large corporation. Occasionally, while talking with customers, the men would say, “God bless you,” or “Praise the Lord.” Their employer ordered the men to stop these greetings and fired them when they didn’t comply.
Knowing the Limits
In our litigious society, we have to be wise and knowledgeable when it comes to sharing our faith in our places of employment. In the workplace, in most situations, an employer cannot stifle an employee’s expression of faith beyond the degree that they can stifle any other employer’s opinions and personal expressions.
This means, for instance, that if you want to post a religious saying or Scripture verse in your cubicle, it is normally permissible, as long as other employees are allowed to post personal posters in their offices or cubicles. In other words, your choice of wall hangings cannot be banned simply because they are religious. However, if the employer doesn’t let other employees hang personal posters in their workspaces, you cannot hang a poster either—religious or not.
Likewise, if other employees can use the boardroom for purposes other than work at specific times, employers usually cannot prohibit a Bible study or a related religious activity in the same boardroom, unless it is deemed to interfere with the normal course of work time.
Talking the Talk
Are you allowed to verbally witness at work? One twenty-year human resources veteran states, “In many ways, the whole thing of witnessing at work is filled with shady areas.” There is a legal need to balance the rights of the individual with the rights of those who do not wish to be approached with a religious message.
The human resources veteran explains: “If someone complains that the person in the next cubicle is disrupting him by playing country music, I have to check it out. The same is true with claims of being harassed by a religious witness.”
We have a right to talk about our faith, but we also have to be considerate and avoid situations that can be taken as harassment or disruption of the workplace.
For instance, a manager who organizes her personal Bible study notes on office time and has her secretary type the notes is not showing consideration for the secretary’s time, nor using the employer’s time honestly. This manager would be rightly reprimanded for the act.
However, this same manager may host a prayer meeting in her office before the work day begins, allow prayers in her office during departmental meetings, and affirm her Christian faith in other ways in personal conversations. Courts in various countries, including the United States, have ruled in favor of such expressions.
Walking the Walk
As Christians, we should also be respectful of others’ limitations. If I tell a co-worker about the gospel, and he asks me not to talk to him about the subject again, I should honor that request. The law protects my initial discussion, but if I continue to force the subject upon someone who has asked me to stop, then he could file a harassment complaint against me. If I want to talk to that person about my faith again, I would need to get his permission first. Just as we expect our feelings, beliefs, and rights to be respected, we must respect those of others.
An employee cannot be disciplined or terminated solely on the basis of his or her religious beliefs, but an employer is not required to accommodate those beliefs if the cost to do so would be a burden to the company. We are free to talk about our faith on breaks, on lunch hours, or before or after work.
If we are allowed to talk about anything besides our job at various times during the day, were also free to talk about our faith, as long as it does not hinder our work or unreasonably hinder the work environment. If, however, we are witnessing when we should be working, employers have a right to ask us to focus on the job we are being paid to do.
In the first case discussed above, JoAnn took the matter to court. In the end, the courts agreed that she had respectfully shared her faith after asking for permission and did not intend to harass or cause emotional anguish for the men. She was reinstated. In the case of Leroy and Marcus, the courts found that the men were non-confrontational and that their greetings did not cause any harm to the company’s business.
When it comes to sharing your faith at work, don’t let your fears of legal limitations hinder you.
The key is to be respectful, sincere, and considerate. And isn’t that what Christ calls us to do anyway?
Jeanette Littleton is a writer and editor who serves as associate editor of Grace & Peace Magazine, a clergy journal for the USA/Canada Region of the Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, May/Jun 2018.