Note: I have edited and paraphrased these two letters to protect the privacy of the writers, whose jobs might be jeopardized. I indicate where I have completely summarized with italics and parentheses. However, I have made every effort to preserve both the essence and the intentions of what was said.
I work for a large agency funded by the government of a southern state with taxpayer dollars. Recently, every employee in our organization received a long e-mail from our outgoing departmental supervisor that thanked the whole agency for its hard work throughout her tenure, and credited other officials whom she deemed very hardworking and invaluable.
However, the last three paragraphs of her e-mail concerned me:
(The supervisor thanked everyone for the privilege of serving with them, saying that it was an honor to have been a part of it. She talked about looking to her most important source for guidance as she faced difficult challenges daily at work, meaning God. She said that she reads a daily religious affirmation online, and that shortly after she had tendered her resignation, the daily message was very pertinent, and it had relieved the last doubts she had had about making that decision.
The message was about employment, and how one’s work can be an expression of one’s spiritual life and commitment to serving both God as well as other human beings. It went on to talk about working with integrity and reliability, and feeling gratitude for all the people with whom one works. It concluded with a statement about giving and receiving joy in the workplace, and about expressing devotion to God through service to others.)
Obviously writing her back and addressing her role as a state representative who is (indirectly?) endorsing a particular religion concerns me and my job, but I think it’s something more state bureaucrats should be made aware of in a civil way. This is not the first mention of the Judeo-Christian god by employees at my agency, but the remarks from this very high ranking official has caused me to write you. I have considered e-mailing her anonymously from an account outside of our state’s e-mail system, but this will not be seen by other employees nor do I think even a civil critique of her actions would give her any real incentive to write another e-mail out addressing what she has done and why it’s unethical on principle. I have no personal contact with this official, so I am unsure how I should address this. I cannot let this go unchecked, especially as a state employee myself and considering we have hundreds of other state employees who are of other faiths and of no faith, such as myself. How should I handle this?
An atheist bureaucrat
Dear atheist bureaucrat,
Like you, I think it’s very important to keep church and state separate, but I don’t think the wall has been breached here.
She’s resigning, leaving, on her way out, saying goodbye. On occasions like these, it’s a common custom to allow a person to let their hair down a bit and express themselves from the heart. She is speaking as a private person in this letter, not as a state employed supervisor. She is sharing how she personally found these spiritual affirmations helpful for guidance and inspiration. She’s not talking about where the agency should go in the future, she’s sharing how she got through it in the past. Also, considering the second thoughts that pester people who wrestle with decisions to resign, it is understandable that she would want to express her feelings of relief and certainty that she’d done the right thing.
Even though she sent this through the agency email to every employee, I do not see how anyone would mistake this as the state agency’s endorsement of a particular religion, or her proselytizing. She’s saying, “Hey it’s been a challenge and a pleasure, and I just wanted to share that my faith in God was very helpful to me. Bye.”
I read nothing there that either explicitly or implicitly said that employees should follow her religious views. I read nothing that stated or suggested that the agency has a mission, a duty or a role to endorse or promote her religion or any other religion. Farewell statements by already resigned bosses do not set or express policy. High ranking or not, on her last day she gets to be a person, and I must say, it was pretty positive stuff. Even Presidents get to go to church once in a while or say “God bless America” at the end of a speech without it becoming a Constitutional crisis.
Let it go. The ethical impropriety in this needs a microscope to be seen. She used the agency email system for a goodbye letter and she mentioned that God was helpful to just herself. Big deal.
Now, if the incoming supervisor were to send an email introducing himself or herself with heavy references to religion and passages of scripture, or sent daily spiritual/religious affirmations to all the employees, or started every staff meeting with a prayer, or talked about God this, and God that, during interviews, that kind of thing would be inappropriate and would be important to correct.
Save your energy and ammo for the bigger battles. I’m sure you’ll have some.
I work for a very large Federal department, and my agency functions as the accounting and finance division for the whole department. We have several thousand people in my building alone, and there are several other sites around the world. Most employees seem to be Christians.
My problem lies with our “meditation room” which is actually a Christian church within the building. I believe it is merely labeled a meditation room to avoid lawsuits. In this room there is a daily church service being held. It is even advertised in our news letter. I went to see this room for the first time the other day and was shocked to see it is filled with rows of pews, bibles, and a 5 foot wooden cross. How can this room not be declared unconstitutional? What course of action can I take to shut this place down. I do not want to bring a lawsuit because it would drastically hurt both my career and my wife’s career. Is there any organization which would take up the lawsuit without my name being in it?
I call things like this workplace indulgences. Some companies provide gymnasiums, lounges for socializing, libraries or quiet reading rooms, day care centers for small children, jogging trails around the grounds, even napping rooms with cots, all sorts of things that may keep the employees healthy and happy, and hopefully more productive.
Yes, the euphemistically named “meditation room” is clearly decked out as a chapel, although I suppose one could practice any religious or secular method of quiet meditation in there. If I want a quiet place to sit still and concentrate on my breathing, I don’t give a damn (if you’ll excuse the expression) that there’s a couple of intersecting two-by fours bolted to the wall. Gongs, bells, or chanting might disturb others, so such conflicting uses would need to be scheduled around each other and announced in that company newsletter.
But the question is, does this room cross the line between a benign indulgence of employees’ personal religious practice, and an unconstitutional establishment/endorsement of a specific religion?
You might contact the ACLU or Americans for Separation of Church and State for advice since they have experience with such situations, but I think they will ask you questions similar to some that come up in my mind:
Is it equitable? In order to avoid violating the non-establishment clause, the everybody-or-nobody rule seems to apply to religious indulgences on government property, including holiday displays. Is the meditation room open for anyone to use at any time, or is it locked when not being used for specifically Christian services? If anyone asks for a different room to be used for Muslim prayer, will that be provided? If nobody has requested that room or another room specifically for Buddhist or Jewish or Hindu or Pagan or whatnot religious activities, then that rule hasn’t been tested yet, and you don’t know if it’s equitable.
Does it interfere with the agency’s task? You’ve said that several thousand people work there, in what I assume is a very large building. Are there many rooms that are unused or under used, or is the work already hampered by overcrowding?
There have been some recent court decisions in cases filed just on the principle of keeping religious things out of government, and the trend has been for the courts to insist that the plaintiffs demonstrate that they have “standing.” That means that they have been significantly negatively effected. If there is no harm done, there is not much justification for legal action. The courts are not very interested in hearing such cases on principle alone. The general taxpaying public would have standing if the meditation room actually impedes the work they are paying your agency to do.
Who’s paying for the stuff in the room? Other than the square footage, of which your building may have a surplus or a shortage, was taxpayer money spent to furnish and equip the room, or was that donated by the employees who use the room?
Do you or other employees have “standing?” Does the existence of this room significantly effect you or others detrimentally? If the room merely annoys you, that probably wouldn’t be seen as a legitimate complaint. If someone is being harmed in some way, the people being effected would have to be willing to make formal complaints at first, and then if necessary, file lawsuits as named plaintiffs. You’ve indicated that you wouldn’t want to risk that.
Other questions would include finding and proving whether or not there is a culture of bias in hiring or promoting that favors people who use the room or who openly demonstrate their Christianity, or that Christianity improperly influences the work that your government agency does.
The answers to the above questions will lend insight to the harder essential question, is this room really an improper government agency endorsement of Christianity, or is it nothing more than a workplace indulgence given to those Christians who asked for it to use on their own time?
If the room doesn’t involve any of these problems, then I don’t really see what would make it so objectionable, either legally or personally.
Louis, there is one way that you might get answers to some of these questions without tipping your hand that you object to the meditation room. Ask whomever would be the right person if it would be possible to create an employee library and reading room. Propose a place for quiet reading and a communal collection of used books and magazines donated by employees. It doesn’t matter whether you intend to follow through with it. This would be an opportunity to ask questions.
Keep your intentions sounding simple and innocuous. This way you may gain insight about how properly or improperly the meditation room was indulged by the administration. Pretending innocence, ask about furnishing the room. You’ll need tables, chairs and a bookshelf. Ask, “for instance,” where did the meditation room get those nice pews and the Bibles? The answers to your questions and whatever else the administration says could be very enlightening. If they say sorry, you can’t have the reading room because the building’s too crowded, or some other problem that was not an obstacle for the meditation room, then that may be evidence of favoring a religious over a secular workplace indulgence.
And if you follow through, you might even get a nice reading room and library. You could add a few scientific, secular, humanist and atheist books and magazines into the communal collection, just to see what happens.