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In good company

Business | A growing "faith at work" movement is giving both employees and employers a new perspective about life on the job

Issue: "Foster care's future," March 5, 2005

For 20 years, David Roth was what he calls a "Sunday Christian." On Sundays, the sales and marketing executive went to church. On Mondays, he went to war.

"I didn't lie, cheat, or steal at work, but for me, the workplace was a battlefield and the war was to be won or lost," said Mr. Roth, 47, of Fayetteville, Ark. "It was about getting a promotion, making money. I didn't have my faith on the radar when I was at work."

Times have changed. Mr. Roth now heads WorkMatters, Inc., a group that helps people and companies integrate work and Christian faith. Founded in 2003, the nonprofit is one of hundreds of organizations that have sprung up in recent years to support the "faith at work" movement, an awakening in which both employers and employees are realizing that when workers clock in, they need not leave their spirituality in the parking lot.

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A decade ago, there were only about 25 faith-at-work groups; today there are around 1,200, according to Os Hillman, director of the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries (ICWM), who notes other measures of the faith/work trend: A flurry of books on the topic-including Jesus, CEO; God Is My CEO; Faith at Work; and State of Faith: God in the Workplace-has hit bookstores since 2000, in addition to such magazines as Life@Work and The Regent Business Review. Meanwhile, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship now supports or sponsors Christian study groups at many of the nation's premiere business schools, including Wharton, Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Chicago, and MIT.

Those schools send graduates to some of the biggest companies in the world, including Ford Motor Company, which "got religion" in 2000. The century-old firm that year added the "Ford Interfaith Network" to a constellation of "employee resource groups" that includes associations for African-American, Hispanic, Asian/Indian, Chinese, and female employees. Ford, which also recognizes groups for parents and homosexuals, is among a growing list of corporate heavyweights, including Intel, Coca-Cola, Texas Instruments, and Boeing, that are adding religion to their list of approved affinities.

Boeing systems analyst Michael Blanchard is president of a two-year-old Boeing Employees Bible Fellowship (BEBF) at the firm's 300-employee support facility in Mesa, Ariz. The aerospace giant sponsors at least 16 such fellowships. About eight regular members attend the weekly lunchtime study in Mesa, which Mr. Blanchard publicizes mainly via bulletin-board fliers and word of mouth.

"We've had positive and negative responses," he said of personally inviting other Boeing employees to the group. "Some people have said, 'Oh, yes, absolutely.' Others have said: 'Absolutely not. I don't believe in that.'"

BEBF members tread carefully in this regard: According to company rules, limited use of corporate resources, such as meeting space, overhead projectors, pens, pencils, and the like, are within bounds. "Proselytizing" is out.

That can include excessive hospitality, said Dean Schaner, an employment law attorney with Haynes and Boone, LLP, in Houston. For instance, a bank Mr. Schaner represents had allowed employees to meet for a regular onsite Bible study. But, using the bank's e-mail system, group leaders began sending study-related reminders and invitations to all employees. That sparked complaints from some workers who felt the invitations amounted to unwanted proselytizing.

When the bank sought Mr. Schaner's advice, he noted that the employees also used the corporate e-mail system for other non-work-related solicitations-everything from potluck invites to pitching Girl Scout Cookies. To avoid a potential religious-discrimination issue, the bank squelched all "intra-office spam" unless employees specifically "opted in."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 governs the issue of on-the-job religious discrimination. While employers cannot force workers to participate in religious activities, they must also "reasonably accommodate" the "sincerely held religious beliefs" of those who wish to blend faith and work. This might include allowing for onsite-but off-clock-religious practices, or such concessions as work-hour modifications to accommodate special observances.

As the faith-in-the-workplace movement has blossomed, religious-discrimination complaints have increased apace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2003 received about 2,500 such complaints, an increase of almost 85 percent since 1992.

Mr. Schaner has observed that larger companies, whose HR staffs are more used to dealing with Title VII issues, generally are more accommodating when employees want to bring religious practices and observances to work with them. "The smaller and mid-sized fast growth companies tend to be a little more reactionary. They'll say, 'Oh, we can't have this!' because they think religion doesn't mix with workplace."

WorkMatters president David Roth has encountered a similar pattern of resistance. His group has successfully established Bible study groups at publicly traded Fortune 100 companies operating in northwest Arkansas, such as Procter & Gamble. "The handful of refusals we've had were at smaller, privately held companies. They felt they just didn't want to open that Pandora's Box."

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