Government Employee Dismissed for Engaging in Religious Activities

Court rules that man’s rights were not violated.

Church Law and Tax 1994-03-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

Key point: Government employees may not have a constitutionally protected right to proselytize fellow employees, or even to display some religious items in their offices.

A federal district court in Iowa ruled that the constitutional rights of a county employee were not violated when he was dismissed for his religious activities on the job. The dismissed employee had been a supervisor in a computer department. He, and a group of the 50 employees under his supervision, were evangelical Christians who regularly met for prayer and discussion of personal needs. The county, responding to complaints of some of the other employees, investigated the religious activities. This investigation revealed that the supervisor had engaged in various religious activities on the job. The supervisor was issued a reprimand that stated: “You will immediately cease any activities that could be considered to be religious proselytizing, witnessing, or counseling and will further cease to utilize county resources that in any way could be perceived as to be supporting a religious activity or religious organization.” Soon after this reprimand, the supervisor was ordered to remove all religious items from his office, including a wall plaque, a framed wall poster, a ceramic item with the Lord’s prayer, a small folding stained glass plaque, and a small Bible which he kept in his desk. The supervisor complied with all of these demands. Nevertheless, he was fired a few months later. The dismissed supervisor sued the county, claiming that his constitutional right to freely exercise his religion had been violated by the county’s actions. He also claimed that the county violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against any employee on the basis of an employee’s religion. A federal court rejected the supervisor’s claims and upheld his dismissal. The court acknowledged that federal law requires employers to accommodate the religious practices of employees, so long as such accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer or interfere with the rights of co-employees. However, the court concluded that accommodating the supervisor’s religious practices in this case would have created an undue hardship for the county and infringed on the rights of co-workers: “Allowing supervisors and employees to witness and pray on county time would work an undue hardship on the county’s duty of religious neutrality. As a supervisor [the dismissed employee’s] testimonials could be viewed by employees as religious endorsements attributable to county government. Moreover, religious activity may lend itself to the type of conduct prohibited by Iowa’s own civil rights laws forbidding religious harassment and discrimination.” The court also pointed out that there was ample evidence that the supervisor had been dismissed for inadequate performance rather than for his religious activities. Finally, the court concluded that “the religious items kept in [the supervisor’s] office do not constitute the type of expression subject to first amendment protections. Moreover [the supervisor] has not established that the removal of religious items from his office inhibited his ability to freely exercise his religion. Accordingly [the county’s] directive to remove the items, although arguably overzealous, does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.” The court added: “Although this court has concluded that such a directive does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation, it is somewhat troubled by [the order]. [The supervisor] complied with the county’s order to cease witnessing, counseling and proselytizing. [The county] however felt it was necessary to also order [him] to remove all evidence of his faith from his personal work space. [The county’s] prohibition required [the supervisor] to remove from his office items of personal meaning, such as the stained glass plaque which belonged to his deceased brother. Generally [his] religious items were positioned for his viewing, not to inundate others with a religious message. The Bible was kept in a drawer for [his] retrieval. Under these circumstances, the court is not convinced that removal of all these items from [the supervisor’s] office was essential to prevent the county’s excessive entanglement with religion, In this court’s view, a reasonable compromise could have been achieved.” Brown v. Polk County, 832 F. Supp. 1305 (S.D. Iowa 1993).

See Also: Display of Religious Symbols on Public Property

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