Freedom of Religion at Work

Restrictions of employees’ religious speech may violate the First Amendment.

Church Law and Tax 1997-09-01

Freedom of Religion

Key point. Broad restrictions on employees’ religious speech may violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom.

A federal appeals court ruled that a government agency violated the constitutional rights of employees when it adopted broad bans on religious speech and displays in the workplace. An employee of the State of California began using the acronym “SOTLJ” after his name on documents he prepared in the course of his work. The acronym stood for “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and was used because the employee felt it was important to give credit to God for the work he performed. The state suspended the employee, and then issued orders prohibiting him from (1) using any religious “names, acronyms, or symbols” in the workplace; (2) initiating any religious discussions during the work day; and (3) displaying any religious books or pictures outside of his immediate work space. A few days later these restrictions were imposed on all employees. The employee challenged these restrictions, and a federal appeals court ruled that the state’s policy was unconstitutional. The state defended its ban on religious discussions by claiming it was necessary to avoid an establishment of religion. The court disagreed: “Certainly nothing [the employee] says about religion in his office discourse is likely to cause a reasonable person to believe that the state is speaking or supports his views. Allowing employees … to discuss whatever subject they choose at work, be it religion or football, may incidentally benefit religion (or football), but it would not give the appearance of a state endorsement.” The court also struck down the policy forbidding the display of religious materials outside of an employee’s cubicle:

We conclude that it is not reasonable to allow employees to post materials around the office on all sorts of subjects, and forbid only the posting of religious information and materials. The challenged ban not only prevents employees from posting non—controversial information that might interest some or all employees-such as bulletins announcing the time and location of church services, invitations to children of employees to join a church youth group, and newspaper clippings praising Billy Graham, Mother Theresa or Cardinal Bernadin-it would also ban religious messages on controversial subjects such as abortion, abstinence of various types, family values, and the v—chip. Material that addresses controversial topics from a non—religious viewpoint would, however, be permissible, as would signs inviting employees to motorcycle rallies, swap meets, x—rated movies, beer busts, burlesque shows, massage parlors or meetings of the local militia. The prohibition is unreasonable not only because it bans a vast amount of material without legitimate justification but also because its sole target is religious speech.

The state decided, on the basis of these rulings, to revoke its policy banning the use of religious names and acronyms in the workplace. Tucker v. State of California, 97 F.3d 1204 (9th Cir. 1996). [Display of Religious Symbols on Public Property]

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