A friend of mine worked for many years at a large organization. One day he shared his Christian faith with a fellow employee who was experiencing tough times. The colleague wasn’t overly responsive, but didn’t reject the gospel presentation, either.
End of story? Not quite.
Next thing my friend knew, he was being reprimanded by his supervisor for “harassment.” He barely avoided termination and was compelled to apologize in writing to the “victim” of his supposedly inappropriate behavior.
My friend didn’t regret communicating his faith in Christ. But he learned the hard way that you need to be aware of the potential consequences of workplace evangelism.
American businesses proudly trumpet their commitment to employee inclusion, diversity and mutual respect. But in an increasingly secular, multicultural society, inclusion doesn’t always extend to workers who want to tell colleagues about their religious beliefs. Some companies ban discussion of religion altogether. Others heavily restrict such speech to avoid potential lawsuits or workplace complaints. Some office atheists and agnostics have a hair-trigger sensitivity to what they perceive as religion being forced upon them. At the other end of the spectrum, many religious believers feel discriminated against when they can’t fully express their faith in word and practice on the job.
RIGHTS AND REALITIES
So, what are your rights as a believer in the workplace? How do you navigate the murky waters of what you can and can’t say or do? It’s a huge topic, but here are a few legal basics to remember when it comes to expressing your faith:
- The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives you the rights of free speech and free exercise of religion. That extends to the work arena, but doesn’t mean your employer has to allow you unrestricted time and space to evangelize, particularly if the activity interferes with you performing your job efficiently.
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on their religion, or lack of one. It also generally requires most public (government) and private employers with 15 or more workers to provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees with “sincerely held” beliefs to express and practice those beliefs at work — as long as they don’t impose “undue hardship” on the employers in the conduct of business.
What does that mean? It depends. Varying interpretations, disputes and lawsuits have multiplied in recent years, along with complaints of workplace discrimination both from believers and non-believers (religious discrimination claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission topped 3,800 in 2012). But here are a few examples of “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s religious expression:
If you can talk about sports, politics and other topics unrelated to work around the water cooler, you can talk about faith. To ban that one topic of conversation while allowing others usually constitutes discrimination.
You can have a Bible on your desk. You can pray at your desk.
You can hold or participate in a Bible study or prayer group in non-work areas during break times, lunch periods or before/after work hours if participation is strictly voluntary and company sponsorship is not stated or implied.
You can talk about your faith with anyone in the workplace — as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work or theirs, and the conversation is voluntary. Those are two well-established legal limitations under Title VII. So make sure your evangelistic activity doesn’t affect your job performance. And make sure the people you share with are willing listeners. If they are willing to listen, your company shouldn’t try to prevent you from speaking, nor should office bystanders or passers-by who are “offended” by your speech be able to silence you.
So while more employers are trying to create “religion-free zones” in the workplace, you have the legal right to express your faith within reasonable bounds. But be wise. Realize that you might encounter pushback, discipline or the threat of termination, even if you are responsibly exercising your right to free expression. Workplace evangelism is increasingly controversial; managers don’t like controversy. Are you prepared for a dispute with your company, or even a legal fight?
Listen to the voice of God as He speaks to your conscience. He will tell you whether to take a stand or patiently wait for later opportunities.
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