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Clinton issues religion guidelines for workplace with wide support

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story replaces one with the same headline in Baptist Press dated 8/14/97.
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 presidential directive requires all non-military, federal agencies 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.
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.
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,'” Land said, “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 ceremony at which Clinton announced 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.”
Reservations were expressed, however, by some organizations, including at least one on the left, as well as a few on the right.
The guidelines “really urge … all government employees to set up kind of a religious shrine at their own workplace,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, according to The Washington Post.
The Rutherford Institute and Family Research Council were conservative groups withholding support.
Rita Woltz, Rutherford’s legal coordinator, said in a prepared statement, “First, the guidelines exceed the scope of the president’s statutory and constitutional authority. Second, they contain incorrect legal standards regarding the parameters of religious exercise and religious expression in the federal workplace. Third, they contain vague and contradictory standards which will likely generate much confusion in this area of law.”
In his 10-minute speech, Clinton said his “great hope is that we can enter this new century and this new millennium as the most successful multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious democracy the world has ever known. We will get there through efforts like this — men, women from all walks of life coming together to respect and celebrate our differences while uniting around the ideals that bind us together, more importantly, as one America.”
In commenting briefly on foreign policy during the speech, the president said his administration’s “commitment to religious liberty is, therefore, and it must remain, a key part of America’s human rights policy and an important focus of our democracy.”
Some critics of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, including the ERLC, have said the White House has not given Christian persecution a high enough profile and should have withheld most-favored-nation trade status for China, a leading persecutor of the church. Congress approved Clinton’s renewal of MFN for China this summer.
The new workplace guidelines followed 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 recently Supreme Court-rejected 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.