Guidance on Religious Exercise and Expression in the Workplace

Guidance on Religious Exercise and Expression in the Workplace


On August 14, 1997, President Clinton unveiled new executive guidelines aimed at protecting religious expression in the federal workplace, provided that it does not conflict with an employee's work. The guidelines were issued to clarify and reinforce the right of religious expression in the federal workplace. It will also ensure that federal employees and employers will respect the rights of those who engage in religious speech as well as those who do not.


This guidance applies to civilian federal employees only. Uniformed military personnel are exempted from the guidelines because they have a "different set of concerns and obligations."


This guidance specifically addresses an employee's religious exercise and religious expression when the employees are acting in their personal capacity within the federal workplace. These guidelines do not address whether and when the government and its employees may engage in religious speech directed at the public. This policy guidance should provide answers to frequent questions in the workplace. Actual cases will be reviewed on an individual basis based on facts and circumstances.


Departments must permit personal religious expression by its federal employees to the greatest extent possible. They will not discriminate against employees on the basis of religion, require religious participation or non-participation as a condition of employment, or permit religious harassment. Managers and supervisors must treat all employees with the same respect and consideration, regardless of their religion (or lack thereof).

Religious Expression

  • Agencies will not restrict personal religious expression by employees in the federal workplace except where the employee's interest in the expression is outweighed by the government's interest in promoting the efficiency of public service, or, where the expression intrudes upon the legitimate rights of other employees or creates the appearance, of an official endorsement of the religion.
  • Agencies may regulate the time, place and manner of all employee speech, provided it does not discriminate on the basis of content or viewpoint. Agencies are not required, however, to permit employees to use work time to pursue religious or ideological agendas.
  • Expression in Private Work Areas. Employees should be permitted to engage in private religious expression in personal work areas not regularly open to the public. This is to the same extent that they may engage in non-religious private expressions, subject to reasonable content and viewpoint. This religious expression must be permitted as long as it does not interfere with the agency's carrying out of its official responsibilities.
  • Expression Among Fellow Employees. Employees can be permitted to engage in religious expression with fellow employees subject to reasonable and content-neutral standards and restriction. This expression should not be restricted as long as it does not interfere with the workplace disruption and efficiency. Employees may not display religious messages on items that convey any governmental endorsement of religion or suppression of another group.
  • Expression Directed at Fellow Employees. Employees are permitted to engage in religious expression directed at fellow employees, and may even attempt to persuade fellow employees of the correctness of their religious views. Some religions encourage adherents to spread the faith at every opportunity, a duty that can encompass the adherent's workplace. They are entitle to do this as long as a reasonable observer would not interpret the expression as government endorsement of the religion and it does not interfere with workplace efficiency. Employees must refrain from such expressions when a fellow employee asks that it stop or otherwise demonstrates that it is unwelcome.
  • Expression in Areas Accessible to the Public. When the public has access to the federal workplace, all federal employees must be sensitive to the Establishment Clause requirement that states expression not create the reasonable impression that the government is sponsoring, endorsing, or inhibiting religion generally, or favoring or disfavoring a particular religion. Displaying of religious art and literature in personal work areas subject to the public can be displayed, so long as the viewing public would reasonably understand the religious expression to be that of the employee acting in their personal capacity, and not that of the government.

Religious Discrimination

Federal agencies may not discriminate against employees on the basis of their religion, religious beliefs, or views concerning religion.

  • Discrimination in Terms and Conditions. No employee may promote, refuse to promote, hire, refuse to hire, or otherwise favor or disfavor an employee or potential employee because of his or her religion, religious beliefs, or views concerning religion.
  • Coercion of Employees Participation or Non-participation in Religious Activities. A supervisor may not explicitly or implicitly insist that the employee participate in religious activities as a condition of continued employment, promotion, salary increases, preferred job assignments, or any other incidents of employment nor may a supervisor insist that an employee refrain from participating in religious activities outside the workplace, except where otherwise legal. A supervisor is free to express their views and engage in some kinds of speech about religion as long as it is understood it is his or her personal view. Because a supervisor has the power to hire, fire, or promote, employees may reasonably perceive their supervisor's religious expression as coercive even if not intended by such. Therefore, supervisors need to be careful of their expressions and that it is not perceived as coercion.
  • Hostile Work Environment and Harassment. The law against workplace discrimination protects employees from being subjected to a hostile environment or religious harassment, in the form of religiously discriminatory intimidation, or pervasive or severe religious ridicule or insult, whether by supervisors or fellow workers. Religious harassment based on hostile work environment will depend on the frequency or repetiveness, as well as its severity. Employees should always be guided by general principles of civility and workplace efficiency. A hostile environment is not created by the bare expression of speech with which some employees might disagree.

Accommodation of Religious Exercise

Federal law requires an agency to accommodate employees' exercise of their religion unless such accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the conduct of the agency's operations. The accommodation should be made unless it would cause an actual cost to the agency or to other employees or an actual disruption of work, or unless it is otherwise barred by law. If the agency's work rule imposes a substantial burden on a particular employee's exercise of religion, the agency must go further; an agency should grant the employee an exemption from the rule, unless the agency has a compelling interest in denying the exemption and there is no less restrictive means of furthering that interest.

Establishment of Religion

Supervisors and employees must not engage in activities or expression that a reasonable observer would interpret as Government endorsement or denigration of religion or a particular religion.