Intersection of Faith and Public Service with Daniel Soto

Posted on September 5, 2017

We are pleased to share the sixth article in the series from Daniel Soto, City of Santa Ana, CA. In the series, ELGL members talk about how they balance their personal faith with their public service careers. Sign up to write for this series here

How Do You Handle the Intersection of Your Faith and Public Service?

Much of my utility is put into public service.  Along with being employed full-time in a local government organization, my identity has its roots within the work I do every day.  Public service is a key component of my everyday life—and so is my faith.  And within my faith, I recognize that I am privileged to be part of a majority where I can freely exercise it.  I also understand the importance of using that privilege to challenge discrimination and empower others to live out their faith as well—in the workplace and elsewhere.  Incidentally, I remember that my personal beliefs cannot impact my role as a public sector employee.  This expectation allows me to successfully navigate through the intersection of faith and public service.
Are public sector employees supposed to leave their faith at the door before they enter the workplace?  Is it “legal” to talk about religion at work?  What would happen if they did?  Could they be disciplined or denied a promotion?  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to freedom of religion and expression.  Moreover, the Supreme Court has ruled that these First Amendment protections include employees while at work.  However, it is important to note that statements made by public sector employees pursuant to their official duties are not protected by the First Amendment from employer discipline (see Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006)).
For public sector employees, it is important to differentiate between expression, including expression of faith, in an official capacity and in an unofficial capacity.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits Government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”  Not only does this clause forbid Government from establishing an official religion, it also prohibits Government’s actions that unduly demonstrate a religious preference.  Public sector employees in their official capacity represent Government.  Therefore, they may not express their faith, or exercise their religion, as part of their official duties.  Conversely, in their unofficial capacity, public sector employees may express themselves and practice their religion freely.
The U.S. Department of Labor publishes best practices relating to religious discrimination and accommodation in the workplace, which may be useful for those who seek guidance on this topic.  For additional information, employees should speak with their supervisor.

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