Religion in the workplace: Asset or debit?

Debate over the role of faith in the workplace is roiling and transforming American society as much as any other “public square” religion issue today. Experts say the phenomenon could have a greater long-term impact on the public role of religion than high-profile controversies such as school prayer or displays of the Ten Commandments.

A wide spectrum of Americans sees a positive role for religion in the workplace at a time when morals and ethics are viewed as declining. The 2005 Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would have offered increased protections for religious employees, died in both houses of Congress despite strong bipartisan support. The Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2013, introduced to the Senate by John Kerry in late 2012, also died. Tricky tensions arise over questions of “how far”: How far must companies go to accommodate religious employees’ practices in an increasingly diverse country? How far can workers go in expressing their faith without unlawfully imposing their beliefs on others? And how far must employees go to prove discrimination based on religion – their own or lack thereof, or others’?

Some companies try to limit religious expression on company time and property. But a growing number are fostering expressions of faith by providing time and space for employees to gather or by explicitly making faith an integral part of their business philosophy. At the same time, a growing number of Christian ministries are urging members to live out their faith at work.

The resulting tensions are seen in the growing number of workplace bias reports on religion filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 4,151 charges were filed in 2011 and 3,811 in 2012, the two highest years on record.

Why it matters

Whatever the story hook – conflict or consensus – the intersection of religion and work is a critical element in the growing national conversation about faith, for several reasons:

  • Americans are working more and are increasingly assertive about their right to express their faith in public. Experts say the office has become the main “laboratory” for testing the boundaries of what is an acceptable role for religion in social discourse.
  • The water cooler has become the new public square, and thus one of the main arenas for learning about other faiths in the United States’ increasingly pluralistic society.
  • Corporate scandals have prompted soul-searching by Americans and by American businesses about ways to make the marketplace more ethical. At the same time, the marketplace is more global, encompassing a growing number of faiths.


The law and current legislation

Sociological factors

Experts tend to focus on three major developments:

  • Immigration reform of the 1960s opened the doors to millions of people of religious backgrounds that are much different from what most Americans were accustomed to. Today, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and a host of other peoples of faith populate the workplace and are bringing their respective religious garbs, diets and other practices with them. An adjunct to this trend was fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks and the George W. Bush administration’s military campaign against violent Islamists. Muslims in America have said they often feel targeted by prejudice as a result of these developments, and the workplace is a significant arena where these tensions play out.
  • The growing popularity of new forms of religious observance has led to confusion about how and whether to accommodate them in the workplace. Wiccans, religious reconstructionists, neo-pagans and all manner of new “boutique” religions are unknown to the vast majority of Americans, as well as their supervisors at work. It also appears that limits are emerging on recognizing some religions. The Church of Body Modification claims that its members should have religious protection to wear tattoos and piercings on the job. New cases are always cropping up.
  • The emergence of evangelical Christians into mainstream American culture has also brought about workplace tensions. While the focus is often on the role of Christian conservatives in politics, evangelicals are also increasingly engaged in the culture as a whole, and the evangelical priority on “witnessing” to one’s faith can be a flashpoint in the office. Experts note that it is not just evangelicals who speak openly about their faith, however. Americans as a whole have grown much more accustomed than they ever used to be about speaking openly with others on matters of faith and spirituality – whatever their tradition may be.


  • “Can Christians Wear the Cross at Work?”

    An April 13, 2012 case study on Free Speech Debate about two British Christian women who took their fight to wear a crucifix in the workplace to the European Court of Human Rights.

  • “Bipartisan Unity For Bill Supporting Workplace Religion”

    A March 18, 2005, New York Sun article about the reintroduction in Congress of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.

  • “Muslims Say Dell Forbade Them to Pray at Work”

    A March 12, 2005, Washington Post story about 30 Dell employees who walked off their jobs after being told they couldn’t pray according to Muslim practice.

  • “For God and company”

    Read a Feb. 1, 2005, Boston Globe story about conflicts over religion in the workplace.

  • Dan T. Cathy Chick-fil-A bio

    Read about Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who tries to incorporate Christian teachings into the work ethic of his huge and popular business, including closing his fast-food outlets on Sundays. Chick-fil-A was embroiled in controversy in 2012 following a series of comments by Cathy opposing same-sex marriage.

Surveys and research

  • “Religion and Corporate Culture: Accommodating Religious Diversity in the Workplace Survey Report”

    This 2008 survey report explores religion and the impact of religious accommodations in the workplace from the perspective of HR professionals.

  • “Religion for Corporate America”

    An Aug. 27, 2002, Gallup survey, “Religion for Corporate America”, shows that almost two-thirds of people in the work force think expressions of religion would be either tolerated or encouraged at their place of work. The remaining third (34 percent) say such expressions would be discouraged. Eight in 10 say they personally believe that open expressions of religion should be tolerated or encouraged. One in five (21 percent) say such expressions should be discouraged.

  • “American Religious Identification Survey 2008”

    The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that about 12 percent of Americans say there is no God or it’s unknowable whether there is. The percentage of respondents who self-identified as atheists or agnostics, however, was much lower. The survey, conducted by researchers at Trinity College’s Program on Public Values, followed previous large-scale religious identification surveys in 1990 and 2001 and provided important comparative information about trends in the U.S.

National sources

  • David W. Miller

    David W. Miller is founding Director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative. He was director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and an assistant professor of business ethics at Yale Divinity School. He also led the center’s Ethics and Spirituality in the Workplace program. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister with a degree from Princeton Divinity School and is a prominent author and commentator of the growing nexus between work and faith.

  • Mathew D. Staver

    Mathew D. Staver is founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties education and legal defense organization in Orlando, Fla., that focuses on freedom of speech and religious freedom.

  • Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

    The Becket Fund is a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that works to protect the free expression of all religious traditions. Stephanie Keenan handles media inquiries.

  • Douglas A. Hicks

    Douglas A. Hicks is is provost and dean of the faculty of Colgate University, in Hamilton, New York. Hicks is an ordained Presbyterian minister and author of Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership (Cambridge University, 2003). He is a leading commentator on issues of faith and work and can speak to the impact of the growing presence of women in the marketplace.

  • Judi Neal

    Judi Neal heads the Association for Spirit at Work, a professional association for people trying to live out their faith in the workplace.

  • Nancy R. Smith

    Nancy R. Smith of eastern Massachusetts is the author of Workplace Spirituality: A Complete Guide for Business Leaders (Axial Age Publishing, 2006), which suggests ways to integrate spirituality into the workplace.

  • Richard Barrett

    Richard Barrett is a North Carolina-based consultant who speaks to groups about how bringing spirituality into the workplace can improve business achievement.

  • Bruce N. Cameron

    Bruce N. Cameron is an attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and specializes in religious liberty cases involving employees who have religious objections to joining unions or to financially supporting specific social policies of the unions.

  • Marketplace Chaplains

    The Texas-based Marketplace Chaplains has provided businesses across the country with Christian chaplaincy services since 1984. It employs more than a thousand chaplains around the country.

  • Marketplace Leaders Ministries

    Marketplace Leaders Ministries describes itself as “a voice and agent to create tools that inspire, teach, and connect Christian believers to resources and relationships in order to manifest the life of Christ in their workplace call.” It is run by President and Chairman, Os Hillman.

  • American Atheists

    Since 1963, American Atheists has been the premier organization laboring for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion. It is based in New Jersey and has chapters and affiliated organizations around the country.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    Anne Newkirk Niven is editor of several neo-pagan magazines and is based in Point Arena, Calif. She can discuss issues of workplace bias.

Christian sources

  • Kim Colby

    Kim Colby is senior counsel at the Christian Legal Society in Springfield, Virginia, and has worked at the society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom since 1981.

  • John Graz

    John Graz is director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is an expert in church-state issues, including workplace bias concerns, and he is based in Silver Spring, Md.

  • Alan Sears

    Alan Sears is president, CEO and general counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal alliance based in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose focus is defending religious liberty. The ADF sponsors the Day of Dialogue in schools around the country to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda and express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective.” It also supported the legislation that would have allowed Arizona business owners to deny services to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

    Contact: 480-444-0020.

Jewish sources

  • Anti-Defamation League

    The Anti-Defamation League tracks discrimination based on religion. ADL has 30 regional offices. Check with local ADL officials for a breakdown on the number and type of antisemitic incidents in your area and for leads on interfaith initiatives.

  • Marc Stern

    Marc Stern is General Counsel at the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C. He headed the committee that drafted Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace.

Muslim sources

  • American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

    The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee works to stop discrimination against Muslims.

  • Muslim Public Affairs Council

    The Muslim Public Affairs Council works for Muslim participation in civic life. It works to cultivate leadership in young Muslims and encourage a sense of ownership over their religious and national identity as Americans. The group’s $1.1 million budget includes no overseas funding. It has offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and has several state chapters. The council is considered moderate and politically savvy and is led by first- and second-generation Americans. Salam Al-Marayati is president and co-founder.

Sikh sources

  • Sikh Coalition

    The Sikh Coalition in New York is an advocacy group established by several Sikh groups across the United States after the 9/11 attacks to help protect Sikh civil rights. Nimarta Kaur is the media and communications director.

  • Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

    The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF – formerly Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, or SMART) is the oldest Sikh American civil rights, advocacy and educational organization. SALDEF works to empower Sikh Americans through advocacy, education and media relations.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Frederick T. Golder

    Frederick T. Golder is a Boston-area trial attorney who teaches about employment rights at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. His books include Uncivil Rights: Protecting and Preserving Your Job Rights (Lyra, 1999).

  • Laura L. Nash

    Laura L. Nash is a business ethicist, academic advisor for the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics and former senior research fellow at Harvard Business School. She wrote Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values With Business Life (Jossey-Bass, 2001). Contact through BRICE.

  • Steven D. Jamar

    Steven D. Jamar teaches law at Howard University and has written about religion in the workplace.

  • e. christi cunningham

    e. christi cunningham teaches law at Howard University and has written about employment discrimination.

  • David L. Gregory

    David L. Gregory is a law professor at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y., who specializes in labor and employment issues. He co-wrote Labor Management Relations and the Law (Foundation, 1999) and edited Labor and the Constitution: Labor and Property, Privacy, Discrimination and International Relations (Garland Press, 1999). 

  • Christopher J. Metzler

    Christopher J. Metzler oversaw the equal employment opportunity and diversity studies programs at Cornell University in Ithaca and is now is Senior Associate Dean for Applied Management Degrees at the School of Continuing Studies and Associate Dean for Human Resources and Diversity Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He speaks frequently on workplace harassment issues.

  • Jerry Biberman

    Jerry Biberman is a professor of management at the University of Scranton who writes, teaches, consults and speaks about work and spirituality. He co-edited Work and Spirit: A Reader of New Spiritual Paradigms for Organizations (University of Scranton, 2000). He is editor of the Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion.


  • Timothy L. Fort

    Timothy L. Fort is The Lindner-Gambal Professor of Business Ethics and Executive Director of the Institute for Corporate Responsibility at the George Washington University School of Business. He has published articles on religion, ethics and the workplace.

  • Garrett Epps

    Garrett Epps is a law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in constitutional law. He covers the Supreme Court for The Atlantic as a contributing writer and is the author of several books on the topic, including American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court

In the South

  • Douglas Laycock

    Douglas Laycock is a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia and an authority on religious liberty. He is the author of several books and articles on law and religion and co-edited a collection of essays on same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

  • Charles A. Marvin

    Charles A. Marvin teaches law at Georgia State University in Atlanta and specializes in law and religion. Contact 404-651-2436, [email protected].

  • William P. Marshall

    William P. Marshall is Kenan Professor of Law and a constitutional lawyer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

  • Laura Underkuffler

    Laura Underkuffler is a law professor at Cornell Law School in Ithica, N.Y. and has written about religious discrimination.

  • Michael J. Perry

    Michael J. Perry is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University in Georgia and specializes in religious liberty issues and religious influences over politics. He is author of Religion, Politics and Nonestablishment, among others.

  • Paul E. Salamanca

    Paul E. Salamanca teaches law at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and specializes in law and religion.

  • Wendy Brown Scott

    Wendy Brown Scott teaches law at North Carolina Central University and specializes in law and religion. Contact 504-865-5933, [email protected].

  • Mark C. Modak-Truran

    Mark C. Modak-Truran teaches law at Mississippi College in Jackson and specializes in law and religion.

  • Emily Albrink Fowler Hartigan

    Emily Albrink Fowler Hartigan is a professor of law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio who specializes in law and religion.

In the Midwest

  • David Krueger

    David Krueger holds the chair in managerial and corporate ethics at the division of business administration at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. He is the author of Productive Justice and the Modern Business Corporation in a Global Economy (Abingdon Press, 1997) and Keeping Faith at Work: The Christian in the Workplace (Abingdon Press, 1994).

  • Thomas C. Berg

    Thomas C. Berg is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He is a leading expert on church-state issues and has written on religious land use questions. He supports the rights of religious organizations to choose members based on religion and sexual conduct. He has also written about religious speech in the workplace.

  • Marie Failinger

    Marie Failinger teaches law at Hamline University in St. Paul and edits The Journal of Law and Religion.

  • Michael J. Naughton

    Michael J. Naughton teaches courses on faith and work in the Catholic studies department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also directs the university’s Center for Catholic Studies. Naughton has written numerous books and articles on business culture, vocation and Christian social principles.

  • Joanne C. Brant

    Joanne C. Brant is a law professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada who specializes in employment discrimination.

In the West

  • Roberto Corrada

    Roberto Corrada, a professor at the University of Denver College of Law, is an expert in the legal history of religion in the workplace issues.

  • Martin Rutte

    Martin Rutte is a Santa Fe-based consultant on spirituality in the workplace. He co-wrote Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work (Health Communications, 2001).

  • Frederick Gedicks

    Frederick Gedicks is an expert on law and religion who teaches at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. He regularly writes amicus briefs, law review articles and columns on religious freedom cases before the Supreme Court.

  • Eugene Volokh

    Eugene Volokh teaches law at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has written extensively about religious exemptions, freedom of speech and religious accommodation law.

  • David B. Cruz

    David B. Cruz teaches law at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and specializes in law and religion.

  • Mark S. Scarberry

    Mark S. Scarberry teaches law at Pepperdine University in Malibu and specializes in freedom of religion.

  • Don McCormick

    Don McCormick is a professor in the College of Business and Economics at California State University Northridge. He has taught and written about Buddhist and other spiritual practices and religion in the workplace.

  • Ian I. Mitroff

    Ian I. Mitroff is president of Mitroff Crisis Management in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. His books include, as co-author, A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion and Values in the Workplace (Jossey-Bass, 1999). Contact Ian through his website.

  • Barbara Taylor

    Barbara Taylor is a management consultant with the Institute for Management Excellence in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. She speaks on spirituality in the workplace.

    Contact: 949-667-1012.

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