Magazine article Insight on the News

Clinton's Rules for God in the Workplace

Magazine article Insight on the News

Clinton's Rules for God in the Workplace

Article excerpt

President Clinton has issued guidelines -- praised by liberals and conservatives -- on religious expression in federal workplaces. But some say the document gives less protection than meets the eye.

When President Clinton unveiled his administration's "Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace" at a White House ceremony with Jewish and Christian leaders Aug. 14, he was praised by organizations ranging from the liberal People for the American Way to the socially conservative Christian Coalition and Traditional Values Coalition, or TVC, that seldom have kind words about his policies. "I believe the guidelines are very good," the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of TVC, tens Insight. "What you have here is the Southern Baptist side of Bill Clinton coming forth."

But as the ink dries on guidelines that legal experts view as having the power of an executive order for the handling of religious issues at agencies under the president's administration, some religious organizations are concerned the 13-page document may give less protection to religious freedom than meets the eye and, in some instances, may even undermine it. An analysis by the Rutherford Institute, an international religious-liberty organization based in Charlottesville, Va., says the guidelines "contain incorrect legal standards" as well as "vague and contradictory standards which will likely generate much confusion in this area of law."

George Forsyth, executive director of the Washington-based Catholic Campaign for America, says that too often the guidelines take on the tone of grant" permission for rights already guaranteed by the Constitution and federal law. "Permission granted implies the power to withhold it," he warns. Crystal Roberts, legal-policy analyst for the Family Research Council, or FRC, a Washington-based conservative policy group, says the guidelines "read like a compromise" and "religious expression is not something that's meant to be compromised."

But supporters say the guidelines offer a vast improvement over the current situation in which federal-workplace supervisors frequently have stamped out religious expression by invoking a need to separate church and state. "I think the fact that the president has issued these guidelines will make [supervisors] more aware that people do have a certain degree of freedom to express their religious viewpoint and religious preference in the workplace," says Dudley Rochelle, a labor and management attorney in Atlanta who testified before Congress on religious rights in the workplace. "Public employees have this right because of the First Amendment. Private employees don't have First Amendment rights at work -- only the rights that apply to them under Title 7 [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination]. Public employees actually have more rights because they have First Amendment protection, and they always have had more rights, and yet because government administrators are so sensitive to the separation of church and state issue, in a way they've had less rights in practical reality."

Rochelle cites a case in which a supervisor ordered a state employee to remove Bible verses taped inside her desk drawer. The Christian Legal Society, or CLS, cites the story of Monte Tucker, a California Department of Education employee who was ordered to cease initiating religious discussion, even during breaks and at lunch. After a seven-year legal battle, a federal appeals court held that this prohibition of proselytizing violated the First Amendment. In its press release on the guidelines, the CLS, which helped draft them, said that "today, people like Tucker have a better chance of staying out of court." Although Tucker isn't directly affected by the federal guidelines, Steven McFarland, director of the CLS Center for Law and Religious Freedom, tells Insight he is urging state governments to adopt them as well. …

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