Workplace Chaplains: Important Source of Comfort or Likely Source for Discrimination?

This week, an Associated Press article reported that more and more private businesses are hiring workplace chaplains to counsel employees. Ironically, just two days before, it was reported that a group of California firefighters are suing their employer because the chaplains went too far in imposing their religion (Christian) on firefighters, allegedly violating the separation between church and state. (See New York Times article.) And some members of the U.S. House of Representatives are upset and offended by a chaplain’s recent prayer, which made veiled but condemning references to homosexuality and abortion. (See World Net Daily article.) Could this growing trend ultimately result in more religious discrimination lawsuits, by those workers who don’t share the chaplain’s (or employer’s) religious values? Certainly, the increasing presence of employees who are hired by corporations specifically for the purposes of ministering to employees provides an additional opportunity for workplace conflict over religious issues.

Long a staple in hospitals, prisons, and military organizations, chaplains are also increasingly employed in the public sector as well. Chaplains can provide a religious alternative to secular employee assistance programs, and can minister to employees who have lost touch with local churches because they work so much. Some employers believe that even in these tough economic times, chaplains are a worthwhile investment. A growing number of employers believe that providing workers with spiritual guidance and limiting their stress makes them more productive. A plant manager of a steel manufacturer says that the $1,200 a month his company pays — $3 per employee — is a tiny price for a spiritually healthy workforce. John Fisher of MACSTEEL says, “They say you need to leave problems at work at work and problems at home at home, but realistically you can’t do it. If they come to work and aren’t thinking about making steel, we’re in trouble.” (See AP article.) In additional to spiritual counseling of employees, some chaplains, especially in paramilitary-type operations such as police and fire departments, actually work alongside employees. One police department chaplain, in Seabrook, New Hampshire, helps with the difficult duty of going to the door of residents who will be told that a loved one has died, counseling the family while other officers gather the necessary evidence. (See Portsmouth Herald article.) In fact, the New Hampshire chaplain is perceived to be so much a part of the force that officers recently chipped in to purchase him a bulletproof vest, as he does not carry a weapon, but wears a uniform distinguished only by small cross pins.

Chaplains must be very careful not to cross the line between ministering to workers and offending an employee’s spiritual sensibilities or breaking religious harassment laws. The chaplains at the MACSTEEL plant, hired through a separate company called Corporate Chaplaincy Services, follow the same protocol as secular EAPs, which means no talk of religion until the chaplain receives an employee’s open invitation for spiritual guidance. The National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains, NIBIC, based in Houston, has trained about 150 corporate chaplains or organizations, following military chaplain standards, to properly address the needs of employees of other faiths. Chaplains are required in NIBIC trainings to study Title VII , the federal statute that prohibits religious discrimination by private companies. NIBIC’s code of ethics specifically requires of its claplains that:

We show sensitivity for the moral, cultural, social and religious standards of people with whom we have a pastoral care relationship. We avoid imposing our beliefs on others, although we may express them when appropriate, especially when invited to do so.

However, some companies hire chaplains precisely because they will work to convert employees. A supervisor at MACSTEEL, Russ Barr, believes that “For me as a devout Christian, employees who are Christians should be better, more productive workers with fewer problems.” One of the two largest sources of corporate chaplains is Corporate Chaplains of America near Raleigh, North Carolina. A look at the Corporate Chaplains of America (CCA) web site reveals the organizations strict adherence to specific Christian doctrine and prominently features the quotes of business owners praising how many employee “salvations” the chaplains have produced. An employer who hires this organization’s chaplains is likely to do so precisely because of this organization’s specific approach to chaplaincy, given the direct expression of CCA’s purpose and mission.

The more that chaplain ministries permeate the private workplace, the more likely it is that some chaplains will cross boundaries that employees believe subjects them to inappropriate religious proselytizing. That has already happened, albeit in a public workplace, in San Luis Obispo, California, where firefighters have filed suit against their employer over the chaplaincy program. (See New York Times article.) Six California firefighters there have gone to federal court asking for an end to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s chaplain’s corps because of the program’s alleged commingling of church and state. The plaintiffs say that unlike chaplains in the military and most other public safety organizations, the California forestry chaplains mix religious ministry with their day-to-day duties as firefighters or supervisors. While military chaplains are outside the chain of command, do not serve as combat troops, and have no authority to promote or assign troops, the Forestry Department’s program is run by an evangelical minister who is also a senior official of the department. The complaining officers, who call themselves the “Satanic Six,” seek an end to the official chaplain’s corps be disbanded, asking that it be replaced with a nonuniformed, volunteer group of religious counselors. It also asks that no state money be spent for the training or services of chaplains, and that no explicitly religious language be used at public ceremonies, like fire academy graduations. The lawyer representing the six firefighters also claims that the chaplain services are unnecessary. Carol Sobel, a former ACLU attorney, says

“The department has other programs that virtually duplicate what the chaplain program is doing in a nonreligious context. They have psychologists and other counselors on staff, and they had a nonreligious peer counseling program, which this replaced. The only reason for this program is to add a religious component to what the department is already doing in a nonreligious manner.”

While private groups do not face the same First Amendment concerns as public employers, there still may be scrutiny of whether the work of chaplains merely duplicates the role of employee assistance programs, with the only distinguishing factor being the religious component of the counseling.

Even the highest echelons of government currently face chaplain problems. According to a recent story, some members of the House of Representatives were extremely peeved by a prayer offered by a guest chaplain before the House’s session opened for the day on May 14. (See World Net Daily article.) The Rev. George Dillard III of Peachtree City Christian Church near Atlanta in his prayer before Congress, asked God for “leaders who will seek your truth … who accept that a lie is a lie and not spin; that it is immorality and not an alternative lifestyle; that it is murder not a procedure; that it is stealing and not creative accounting; that rebellion is rebellion no matter what name we give it.” Since the invocations of guest chaplains are supposed to “be free from personal political views, from sectarian controversies, from any intimations pertaining to foreign policy,” according to the House chaplain’s rules, some members objected to what they believed were references to homosexuality and abortion. (Rev. Dillard for his part denies this, claiming that his words referred to “the taking of a human life for no other reason than convenience … whether it is abortion, euthanasia or genocide,” and that his “alternative lifestyle” comment was referring to adultery and pedophilia.) If Congress faces such controversies about the appropriate boundaries for religious expression, it is likely that the private workplace will as well.

Questions About Religion and the Workplace? See our site’s page on religious discrimination.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa es estudiante de tercer año en la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Siracusa. Se licenció en Periodismo en Penn State. Con su investigación jurídica y la redacción de Workplace Fairness, se esfuerza por dotar a las personas de la información que necesitan para ser su mejor defensor.