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Clinton Opens Floodgates for Workplace Religion

by Thomas W. Flynn

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 1.

The conference room is stuffy, far too cramped to share with three Internal Revenue Service auditors. The papers littering the table define the trail of your financial life. One examiner fingers his three-inch crucifix. Another scratches under his yarmulke. The third tugs at her chador. "So," one of them begins, "about this deduction you claimed for a donation to the Council for Secular Humanism. ..."

An impossible scenario? Not under President Bill Clinton's new rules that expand religious expression rights for federal workers. But don't expect most church-state watchdog organizations to object; from the National Council of Churches to the American Jewish Congress and People for the American Way, they helped write the new regulations.

Federal employees may keep a holy book at their desks or wear clothing and jewelry emblematic of their faiths. They can discuss religion, even proselytize if no listeners object. And supervisors must grant time off for religious holidays even if this creates an administrative burden. At first glance this seems innocuous. But federal workers don't just interact with each other. Each day millions of them have dealings with us taxpayers. And some of us don't believe in God.

Clinton's new rules make it easier for religion to intrude into what ought to be the secular operations of government. Inevitably, most of the religious expression thus unleashed will be Christian in character. When unbelievers or members of minority religions visit the Social Security office, get inspected by OSHA or the EPA, or, yes, undergo an IRS audit, they shouldn't be confronted with religious symbols and rhetoric that even suggest that religious discrimination may lie ahead.

At bottom, Clinton fundamentally misunderstands separation of church and state. He's said many times that he supports freedom of religion but not freedom from religion. Yet one is impossible without the other. For an Orthodox Jew, freedom of religion has much to do with being free from intrusive Christmas decorations in a public school or on the courthouse steps. For a devout Muslim, freedom of religion means little if there's no escape from Christian proselytizing in public places. And for a secular humanist, freedom of religion has a great deal to do with expecting that public servants won't treat you differently just because they have a religion and you don't. Government, at least as taxpayers interact with it, really should be a religion-free zone. At least, that's how I interpret the separation of church and state.

Thomas W. Flynn is a Senior Editor of Free Inquiry magazine.

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This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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