Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Increase of the Workplace Chaplain or Another Reason for Federal Anti-Captive Audience Laws

ChurchThanks to friend of the blog, Suja Thomas (Illinois), for bringing to my attention this article from the Wall Street Journal on the increased use of workplace chaplains:

A growing number of companies are offering the services of chaplains in the workplace. Managers say many employees who wouldn't think of calling a therapist or an employee-assistance program will willingly turn to a chaplain. Executives at Tyson Foods Inc., which employs 120 chaplains serving a work force of 117,000, say they believe the service reduces turnover. Other companies contract with chaplain-placement services to handle workplace disruptions that managers can't.

Following the military-chaplain model, these roving spiritual advisers typically visit offices or factories weekly, greeting employees, hanging out in the break room, handing out business cards and meeting one-on-one with workers. But they're also on-call 24/7, so chaplains rush to hospitals, restaurants or homes on request, providing comfort and support free of charge to employees . . . .

The chaplains say they don't proselytize or push any particular beliefs. Instead, they spend most of their time encouraging and calming people, offering emotional support or providing referrals to social service agencies or employee-assistance programs. If employees want to talk about religion, the chaplains do so, but only if asked . . . . Voluntary expression of one's religious beliefs at work is permissible under law, but employers can't legally pressure employees to take part in prayer or devotional services.

As I have written recently, I am concerned by the increased presence of religion in the private-sector workplace, and not because I am hostile to religion.  Indeed, I am worried about the workplace corrupting religious observance. As I wrote recently in Yale Law Journal Online Essay:

Under Citizens United’s robust conception of corporate political speech, employers may now be able to compel their employees to listen to their political views at such meetings on pain of termination.

To eliminate this danger while remaining consistent with the First Amendment framework for election law post-Citizens United, this Essay urges Congress to consider language similar to that enacted by the Oregon Worker Freedom Act (S.B. 519), which became effective January 1, 2010. S.B. 519 prohibits termination of employees for refusing to attend mandatory political, labor, or religious meetings held by their employers. Enacting a federal law like the Oregon bill, which would protect employees from being terminated, disciplined, or otherwise disadvantaged for choosing not to be subjected to indoctrination meetings, would effectively address this problem and would constitute permissible employment standards legislation . . . . 

In addition to political speeches, more companies are hiring ministers to serve their workers. Evangelical Christian organizations are increasingly offering ministry services for employers to provide to their employees during work hours. Prayer breakfasts, faith-based training and education, and requests for information about employees’ religious affiliations are becoming a larger part of the American workplace. Although voluntary religious participation in the private workplace may not be objectionable, power disparities in the employment relationship suggest that some of this employee religious participation may not be a matter of free choice . . . .

The need for this type of legislative response is based on the longstanding recognition that employers’ speech carries a different weight than that of any other participant in political debates, and that the law must be particularly careful to guard employee-voters against the undue influence of their employers . . . .

Religion in the private workplace on a purely voluntary basis is fine, but there must be safeguards in place which prevent employees from feeling that they have no choice in the matter. Here, I also think of the indirect subtle coercive pressures to conform that the Supreme Court discussed in its decisions in Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe v. Doe.  My federal legislative fix would provide the necessary and limited balm.


Commentary, Religion, Workplace Trends | Permalink

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Agreed. I find myself somewhat relieved that someone else has concern for this issue. I myself have been aware of such trends and am made increasingly anxious by them. IMO, if unchecked progression of this sort of merger of the corporate world with the faith-based world continues, it seems logical to suspect that systems of government would soon be left powerless to do anything other than follow suit.

Maybe that is an overreaching conclusion that I leap a bit to far in making. If not, however, I am left feeling deeply concerned regarding the implications of such an enmeshment. For starters, the possible inevitability of a power struggle between the three legs of such a stool is worrisome. Given the massive wealth reserves accessible by corporate employers, this would certainly not be a very fair fight. The likelihood that large corporate interests could view such an opportunity as a means of implementing strategic, de facto control over the private sector and large swaths of the faith-based world is a prospect I regard with great wariness.

Your thoughts?

Posted by: Andy | Aug 20, 2010 2:51:51 PM

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