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Clinton issues religion guidelines for workplace with wide support

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Clinton, acting with the support of organizations spanning the ideological spectrum from liberal civil liberties advocates to conservative evangelicals, issued guidelines Aug. 14 clarifying the extent of religious freedom for federal government employees.
The 15-page directive requires all non-military, federal agencies and their officials to allow to the “greatest extent possible” personal religious exercise, to not discriminate on the basis of religion and to “reasonably accommodate” religious practices by employees.
In a draft version, the “Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religion Expression in the Federal Workplace” specify an employee will be able to:
— share his faith with fellow employees;
— keep a Bible or other scriptures on his desk and read it during breaks;
— wear religious apparel, religious jewelry or clothing with religious messages;
— invite co-workers to church services;
— be protected from discrimination based on his religious beliefs;
— meet with other employees for Bible study and prayer during lunch in a conference room used on a first-come, first-served basis;
— have his observation of the Sabbath or a religious holiday accommodated;
— be exempted from an assignment he finds objectionable on religious grounds.
(Baptist Press did not have a copy of the final guidelines before its Aug. 14 deadline.)
Limiting factors are workplace efficiency and activity that would lead a “reasonable observer” to conclude the government is endorsing religion.
“Whether by allowing religious speech, preventing religious coercion or harassment, or making accommodations to religious practice, the federal government must act to ensure that the federal workplace is generous to followers of all religions, as well as to followers of none,” Clinton said in a memorandum to agency heads.
Endorsers of the guidelines included such diverse organizations as the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, People for the American Way, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and the National Council of Churches. The Christian Legal Society and American Jewish Congress were prime drafters of the guidelines.
“The president’s directive to all federal employees makes it clear that Americans have the right to freedom of religious expression in the federal workplace,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The president’s leadership initiative in issuing these binding guidelines will have an enormously positive effect not only in the federal workplace but by example in the private workplace as well.
“The presidency is a ‘bully pulpit,’ and the president has used that pulpit today to reassert, underscore and act to protect the First Amendment rights of federal employees directly and all Americans indirectly.”
Land and the ERLC’s Washington staff joined other supporters of the guidelines in a White House announcement by Clinton of his directive.
“Employees should not have to choose between their conscience and their livelihood,” said Christian Legal Society general counsel Steve McFarland in a prepared statement. “And as CEO of the nation’s largest employer, the president with the stroke of a pen can make sure no federal worker has to make such a choice.”
Brent Walker, Baptist Joint Committee general counsel, said in a written statement the guidelines “do not solve every problem but do promote understanding and facilitate decision making. These guidelines represent a pro-active attempt to accommodate the practice of religion and religious expression in the federal workplace consistent with the government’s constitutional obligation not to advance religion.”
The new guidelines follow by three years a controversy ignited when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission proposed religious harassment guidelines. The ERLC and other organizations opposed them on the basis of their threat to religious expression. After the EEOC received a record 100,000 comments, the guidelines died.
In 1995, the Clinton administration issued guidelines on religion in the public schools. The ERLC refused to endorse those guidelines.
In introducing the president, Vice President Al Gore, like Clinton a member of a Southern Baptist church, cited the school guidelines and the 1993 signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in calling the president the “best friend religious freedom ever had in the White House,” surpassing apparently even such founding fathers as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.