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U.S.: President Issues Religious Guidelines For Federal Workers

Washington, 15 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has issued guidelines intended to guarantee government employees the right to express religious convictions at work.

Clinton made the announcement Thursday at a special event at the White House while surrounded by several representatives of religious and civil liberties organizations.

Clinton said he was issuing the guidelines to "clarify and reinforce" the right of religious expression in the federal workplace. He said the guidelines would ensure that federal employees and employers respect the rights of those who engage in religious speech and those who do not.

"Religious freedom is at the heart of what it means to be an American, and at the heart of our journey to become truly one America," said Clinton. "Let us pledge always to honor it, and today to make these guidelines the source of harmony and strength as we guarantee to all of our people our precious liberty."

The guidelines provide federal workers the right to wear religious clothing or jewelry to work, discuss their faith openly, gather for prayer in empty conference rooms during breaks, request a day off on a religious holiday, and place religious artifacts, pictures or icons on their desks or in their offices.

The guidelines also say that federal employees have the right to try and convert co-workers to their beliefs, but must stop when asked to do so. This right is especially important to religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons whose beliefs require them to proselytize (to recruit or convert).

The guidelines emphasize that government employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religion, requiring participation or non-participation in religious events as part of their jobs, or hiring or firing employees because of their faith.

Some experts believe Clinton issued the guidelines in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn a 1993 law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Act, which was strongly supported by Clinton, declared that the government could not pass laws which "substantially" interfered with a citizen's right to freedom of religion.

The Supreme Court, however, struck down the law this past June, saying that Congress had overstepped its authority in creating the law.

Shortly after the ruling and again during Thursday's event, Clinton expressed his disappointment with the Court's decision. But he stopped short of openly criticizing the Court.

However, Clinton administration officials are saying that guidelines are not in response to the Supreme Court's decision, but had been in the draft process for several years.

The officials told an American newspaper -- the Washington Post -- that the guidelines were drawn up by a committee that included representatives from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the National Council of Churches, the Christian Legal Society, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, People for the American Way, and the American Jewish Congress.

Although the guidelines are not laws themselves nor are they legally binding, they do support existing laws such as the U.S. Civil Rights Act which forbids discriminatory hiring practices and says employers must reasonably accommodate employees' religious beliefs.

And while the guidelines intend to assure federal workers of their right to freedom of religious expression, they also clarify the rights of federal employers.

For example, the guidelines stipulate that federal agencies must try to accommodate employees religious needs and beliefs, but acknowledge there may be cases where this is not possible.

A case in point: although federal employees may be permitted to wear religious ornamental jewelry and clothing to work, the guidelines state that it must "not unduly interfere" with their work.

The guidelines also say that while employees should be allowed days off on religious holidays, the request may be denied if no substitute can be found and the absence will "impose an undue burden on the agency."

Clinton said America's own history of embracing people fleeing religious persecution in their native countries has made the U.S. a world leader in protecting religious rights.

"Our commitment to religious liberty, is therefore -- and it must remain -- a key part of America's human rights policy and an important focus of our diplomacy," he added.