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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 26, 2007

When workplaces are pulpits

By Anita Wadhwani
Nashville Tennessean

Employees and customers meet for prayers at a Tennessee Mazda dealership. "Faith at work" has spawned a mini-cottage industry.

SANFORD MYERS | Gannett News Service

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment.

Title VII covers workplaces with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government. Among its provisions:

  • Employers may not treat employees or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices except to the extent a religious accommodation is warranted.

  • Employees cannot be forced to participate or not participate in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

  • Employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression, unless the expression imposes undue hardship on an employer. Generally, employers may not place more restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency.

  • Employers must take steps to prevent religious harassment of employees. Employers can reduce the chance that employees will engage in unlawful religious harassment by implementing anti-harassment policies and effective procedures for reporting, investigating and correcting harassing conduct.

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    Robb Medonis, a manager at Nelson Mazda in Nashville, Tenn., leads weekly prayers.

    SANFORD MYERS | Gannett News Service

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    A car dealership holds weekly Christian prayer services and Bible lessons on how to put religious principles into practice in the wheeling and dealing world of auto sales.

    A Presbyterian minister leads business lunches at which bankers, lawyers, architects and others gather to bow their heads in prayer for God's presence in their work lives.

    And at Vanderbilt University, divinity school students are teaming up with business students to collaborate on moral business plans that still turn a profit.

    These efforts are part of a larger, unfolding movement which has drawn charges of religious discrimination already stamped with its own buzzword: the "faith-at-work movement."

    It's a movement that has spawned a mini-cottage industry of books and Web sites and led to an increased use of corporate chaplains and human resource seminars on religious diversity. More slowly, it has begun to interest pastors such as the Rev. Stuart Gordon in taking more of an active role in the Monday-to-Friday lives of his congregants.

    "There are plenty of people who feel their daily work is not suffused with meaning," said Gordon, who conducts the business lunches at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville. "They are cogs in a machine. They are sometimes asked to do things that are incompatible with their own sense of ethics. I want to help individual Christians claim their calling where they work, where they spend most of the time and where many people feel a disconnect."

    But the workplace has proven to be tricky territory for emerging expressions of faith. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports 2,541 charges of religious discrimination during fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 30 a nearly 49 percent increase since 1997.

    "We live in a diverse community, and some people feel like religion in the workplace can create a hostile work environment, that they're being proselytized," said Kelvin Jones, executive director of the Nashville Human Relations Commission.

    What does it mean to bring one's faith to work?

    For some, it's overt expression: hanging crosses in cubicles or placing mezuzahs a Jewish symbol in office doorways. For others, it means being more assertive in requesting time off for prayer or worship services.

    Some simply want to put the principles of their faith into practice providing encouragement to co-workers in a bad work environment or exercising virtuous and honorable leadership in a profit-driven world.

    "There's a spectrum," Gordon said. "Some ... really want to cut the church and paste it on the marketplace and make it a little church. On the other end, there are some who want a big wall of separation between faith and work."

    Individual business owners are often the ones who take the lead in incorporating their faith. At Bob Nelson's Mazda dealerships, for example, faith is both an overt expression and a way of doing business.

    Tuesday mornings at the lot in Antioch, Tenn., salesmen and women gather for a weekly prayer and Bible study.

    Nelson doesn't require his workers to attend or be Christian. But he does counsel his sales force to be honest, a core spiritual value that spans religions.

    "It's a matter of who I am in Christ," said Nelson, whose dealership slogan is "We'll Make a Believer Out of You!"

    "It's not a decision to be a certain way. If you've really made a commitment to God, it's hard to understand how you leave that at the door when you go to work."

    Individual employees, such as SunTrust banker Hank Miles, are trying on their own to walk their faith in their workday lives.

    "I try for it not to be a switch. I've got one life. I'm not Hank Miles, the Christian, on Sundays and Hank Miles, a banker divorced from his Christian beliefs, on Monday."

    But it's not always easy.

    "I've had lunch with some co-workers and shared my faith, and it was really awkward for them. I've tried not to make people uncomfortable, but the word of Jesus either repels or attracts. It's not neutral," he said.