Religious-freedom regs poised on slippery slope

President Clinton has issued an executive order on religious freedom and the workplace that is destined to provoke and antagonize many federal employees.

Clinton said new guidelines contained in the executive order will affirm that federal employees may engage in personal religious activities while prohibiting federal employers from discriminating on the basis of religion and ensuring that agencies reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices.

The Office of Personnel Management has been instructed to distribute the guidelines to all civilian branch agencies and officials. There are four main provisions:

* Employees may engage in religious expression in areas not regularly open to the public. For example an employee may leave a Bible or Koran on her private desk and read it during breaks.

I didn't know that employees could not do this before Clinton issued these guidelines. I have never encountered a situation where a federal employee was barred from leaving a Bible on her desk. In fact I encountered many individuals with Bibles on their desks during my federal career.

* Employees can engage in religious expression with fellow employees to the same extent that they engage in comparable nonreligious private expression. For example employees may discuss their religious views with one another or wear and display religious messages and medallions to the same extent that they are permitted to do so with other comparable messages.

I have problems with this one. How do you distinguish "religious expression" from harassment? I don't object to federal employees wearing religious objects but I'm not sure about messages. What if someone comes to work wearing a religious message that is inflammatory? Who would want to encounter a co-worker wearing a T-shirt suggesting that you will burn in hell unless you convert to his religious faith? These guidelines suggest that such attire would be acceptable.

* Employees can attempt to persuade fellow employees to join in "expressions of their religious views " but they must stop when a fellow employee asks them to stop. Here again I see nothing but trouble. For example how do you handle it if your supervisor tries to talk to you about religion? And how should you treat subordinates during these religious discussions?

How can the relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate not be affected by religious conversations?

* Supervisors may not explicitly or implicitly insist that an employee participate in or refrain from religious activities as a condition of continued employment promotion salary increase or any other incidents of employment.

This provision appears unenforceable. How do you demonstrate that a supervisor has "implicitly" coerced an employee to participate in or refrain from religious activities?

To sugarcoat these guidelines there is a reminder to supervisors that "supervisors and employees must not engage in activities or expressions that a reasonable observer would interpret as government endorsement or denigration of religion or a particular religion."

Personally I think Clinton has created a monster and OPM will be spending countless hours in court defending these guidelines. There should be a difference between going to work and going to church.

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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