Religion in the Public Workplace: Regulation and Accommodation

Article excerpt

Law enforcement is a unique occupation in many ways. The majority of law enforcement officers wear a uniform while working; many have grooming standards and conduct regulations to which they must adhere; some have sworn to uphold laws with which they do not necessarily agree. For example, the federal Free Access to Clinic Entrance, or FACE, law criminalizes attempts to interfere with a woman's access to an abortion clinic. Enforcing the laws also is, by its very nature, a job requiring continuous staffing--24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. These unique aspects of the profession sometimes cause personal conflicts with individual employees' religious beliefs. For example, what happens when a uniformed patrol officer feels it is a religious duty to violate the department's ban on lapel pins by wearing a Christian cross lapel pin or when a group of Muslim male officers violate a department's "no facial hair" policy by growing beards as required by their religion? What about the captain who refuses to assign officers to maintain order at the sight of an abortion clinic protest because his Catholic faith frowns upon abortion? Finally, how should a department handle a potential scheduling nightmare when its officers raise objections to shift assignments conflicting with their Sabbaths or days of worship? This article addresses these issues and raises awareness of the myriad legal provisions that should govern handling them.



Because law enforcement entities necessarily are part of federal, state, or local governments, they must adhere to constitutional limits and mandates, as well as to relevant legislation relating to religion. In a recent First Amendment freedom of speech case involving an assistant district attorney, the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out that the First Amendment invests public employees with certain rights. (1) Therefore, law enforcement executives must be mindful of the First Amendment's freedom of religion (2) provision when dealing with employees of different faiths.


Uniforms/Grooming Standards

Uniforms are almost as much a part of the law enforcement culture as they are a part of the military culture. As such, policies and restrictions regarding the wearing of them are almost universally upheld. When a department has strict rules concerning the adornment of its uniform, an individual's ability to display a religious item on it may be curtailed. While the assertion of a First Amendment-protected religious right raises the legal bar for law enforcement departments in these cases, (3) courts typically find little sympathy for those individuals who find themselves in this predicament. In Daniels v. City of Arlington, Texas, (4) George Daniels, a 13-year veteran of the police department challenged his department's refusal to allow him to wear a small, gold cross pin on his uniform. Daniels wore the pin "as a symbol of his evangelical Christianity" (5) while working in a plainclothes position with the department, and he continued to wear it after reassignment to a uniformed position. The police department in Arlington, as part of its general orders, had a uniform policy that read "No button, badge, medal, or similar symbol or item not listed in this general order will be worn on the uniform shirt unless approved by the police chief in writing on an individual basis." (6) Daniels requested specific allowance, pursuant to this general order, to wear the cross pin on his uniform from the police chief at that time. The chief refused permission but offered several possible accommodations to resolve the situation, including 1) wearing a cross ring or bracelet instead of the pin; 2) wearing the pin under his uniform shirt or collar; or 3) transferring to a nonuniformed position where he would be allowed to wear the pin on his shirt. (7) Daniels declined all of the possible solutions and was fired for insubordination. …