It’s no wonder that I never get anything done. I find myself wrapped up in the most asinine activities, half the day gone by, and can only shake my head. Like today.
Reading the paper this morning, I came across the following in an advice column:
I am an atheist. Last fall, I was hired as a professor at a public university. Soon after, I received a desk decor gift from the department dean that included Bible quotes on small Post-its. I constantly get religious e-mails from the department secretary and my department chair. Last fall during the Thanksgiving break, our entire department was invited to a celebration in our building. Right after the food was set out, my department chair asked everyone to be quiet so she could say grace. I bowed my head, staring at the floor as they prayed. I would respect this practice in someone’s home. But in a workplace — especially an academic institution that is supposed to broaden minds — I felt it was inappropriate, presumptuous and intolerant, and maybe illegal at a federally funded institution. I am not going to complain. I am afraid that it would affect my relationships at work. — Offended Professor
I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t give your colleagues your point of view. Is it only the students’ minds that are to be broadened at your institution? I shared your letter with Paul Miller, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and a former commissioner for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Miller says, “At a federally funded government institution, this runs counter to the First Amendment. The law is structured to protect employees from mandated religious practice. There should be boundaries around religion in the workplace and at a workplace function.” (The text of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 pertaining to religious discrimination is on the EEOC Web site at http://www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html .) Even if you don’t want to make a “federal case,” you have a right to let your colleagues know where you stand.
Honestly, I tried to let it go. I tried to get on with my day. “What does it really matter?” I asked myself.
I tried. And failed. Damn it all anyway.
So I spent the better part of the morning neglecting my housework and my shower and every other thing crying for my attention (except Griffin, of course) and hammered out a response to Amy and her “legal expert.”
The biggest bone I had to pick with them was so glaringly obvious that even I couldn’t believe it at first. Take a moment to go to the website link cited in the reply above and read the EEOC’s guidelines. C’mon, they’re short. I’ll wait right here for you.
All done? Did you discover their biggest boo-boo?
And I quote: “Employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”
Did they even read this website before referencing it? Doesn’t it sound clear? (Of course, it’s legal jargon so that is somewhat debatable, but pretty clear as legal jargon goes?)
Anyway, there is so much to say on this subject that I spent most of my time editing my response. Here is what I finally sent, included here because I know they’ll never print it.
In response to the atheist professor who chose not to speak up against the religious overtures of his/her new colleagues, I say “too bad.” If this presumably educated, intelligent adult can’t find a direct but courteous way to inform others about his/her spiritual beliefs — or non-beliefs — he/she has forfeited the right to complain. Furthermore, there is a difference between “mandated religious practice” in the workplace and social inclusion by coworkers who are, themselves, religious. Offended Professor was given a gift and willingly accepted the invitation to a social event. What precisely was “mandated”? Your legal expert’s view that colleagues should eliminate their expression of religious beliefs simply because they are in public (the workplace) is an infringement upon their rights — even according to his own source. The EEOC’s website link given in your column includes the following statement: “Employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship on the employer.” Even the most perfunctory inspection of U.S. History reveals that the concept of “separation of church and state” originated with the goal of protecting religion from government interference, not government from religious interference. More importantly, separation of church and state does not override the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing every citizen the free exercise of religious beliefs. That means religious people (and non-religious people) are free to actually express beliefs, not just believe (or disbelieve) in the privacy of their homes. I passionately support an atheist’s Constitutional right to his/her beliefs. However, that does not mean that anyone has the right to sanitize public life from all references to religion anymore than my personal distaste for seafood gives me the right to insist that my fellow diners in a restaurant refrain from eating fish in my presence. If Offended Professor is honest with his/her coworkers and they don’t accept it, then I’ll agree that they’re intolerant. Until then, he/she should be more concerned about growing a backbone and less concerned about coworkers who haven’t yet had the chance to be intolerant. — Sincerely, A Lover of Liberty
I support the right of everyone to go to Hell in their own way. In fact, I think separation of church and state is a good thing — if we are speaking to the original intentions of the Founding Fathers. But to remove all references to God from public life just because it might offend someone?
Does it offend my sensibilities to see an overweight person in a string bikini (or worse, an old man in a Speedo)? Hell yes! Does that mean I think public beaches should pass an anti-cellulite (or anti-sag) ordinance? No. I will just have to — gasp — LOOK AWAY!
Stephen L. Carter’s A Culture of Disbelief is an excellent book on the subject of religion in the public square. I heartily recommend it to all disbelievers, offended and otherwise.
Meanwhile, to all you atheists out there, know this: I’m praying for you.
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