Attorney argues for protection of rights to faith in the workplace

By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG

Posted 11/17/17

The right for a person to exercise his or her faith in the workplace “is not reserved just for pastors,” an attorney told a group of local business leaders in a special gathering earlier this …

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Attorney argues for protection of rights to faith in the workplace

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The right for a person to exercise his or her faith in the workplace “is not reserved just for pastors,” an attorney told a group of local business leaders in a special gathering earlier this week. 

Matt Sharp, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, recently held a workshop called “Faith in the Marketplace” at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce. This event was sponsored by Southern Heritage Bank.

Explaining the outcomes of several court cases which have involved Christian business owners, Sharp stressed the freedom the U.S. Constitution gives to practice religion is “for everybody,” even if there are disagreements. 

“The question to me is, can the government tell you what you must do and what you must speak?” Sharp said. 

He told the story of Jack Phillips, owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., who declined to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. 

Sharp said Phillips is a Christian who considers his bakery creations to be inspired works of art, and he only makes items which are in line with his religious preference. For example, he does not sell any items made with alcohol. 

One day, two men asked him to make them a wedding cake. Sharp said Phillips told them he would sell them other items on the menu but explained that wedding cakes were “sacred” for him. Though they were allegedly free to purchase other kinds of cake, they later filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division. 

“A cake is unique for him. … It is his art,” Sharp said. “This is not a denial of service.” 

The case against Phillips, who is being represented by an ADF attorney, is expected to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 5. Sharp said the outcome of this case could set legal precedent for several cases like it.

Though this case is being promoted by the American Civil Liberties Union as an attack on the couple and their rights, Sharp argued that Phillips has the right to refuse to create something which conflicts with his beliefs. 

Sharp referenced a previous Supreme Court ruling which said a school cannot force a student to say the Pledge of Allegiance if it conflicts with his or her religious beliefs. He said the same principle applies in this case, because Phillips communicates a message with every cake he makes. 

“We never want the government having the power to say, ‘You are wrong’ and ‘You are right’ when it comes to speech,” Sharp said. 

Sharp explained numerous faith-based organizations have come under fire in recent years for their refusal to align with beliefs contrary to their own. A couple examples were a Christian homeless shelter for women which turned away a transgender person and a Catholic adoption agency which chose not to place a child with a gay couple. 

Though some states in recent years have chosen to change their anti-discrimination laws to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Sharp argued these changes are not in the spirit of the original laws. He gave a brief history of how anti-discrimination laws were created to help people facing discrimination based on their biological sex, age, race or religion.

"Luckily," Sharp said, Tennessee is not one of the states which has added wording related to sexual orientation and gender identity, which makes it easier for Christians in this state to defend any actions taken against them. 

Pointing back to the bakery case, Sharp said refusing to make a certain item for a customer is not the same thing as refusing to serve a customer altogether. He said anti-discrimination laws were originally made to address the latter concern. 

He stressed business leaders have the right to exercise their faith in the workplace, and he argued these rights can be protected legally. Sharp urged business leaders to “take a stand” when confronted with conflicts related to their religious beliefs. 

“When you take a stand, it’s not just about you,” Sharp said. “It’s about everyone who comes behind you.” 

Those attending the workshop heard several examples of Christian business leaders who went to court over complaints related to their beliefs and won. These included a family refusing to allow a gay wedding to take place in their event venue barn to a T-shirt designer refusing to make shirts for an LGBT pride event. 

Sharp told the group that people do not have to leave their faith at home when they go to work, and their right to exercise their religious beliefs must be respected. 

Alliance Defending Freedom is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded to provide free legal defense for Christians who run into conflict as they express their beliefs at work. However, Sharp stressed the legal decisions which result are beneficial for those of other faiths. 

“We have a duty to preserve these freedoms, not just for us but for our children and our neighbors as well,” said Sharp. 

The attorney also took several questions from the audience about issues related to their specific businesses and organizations. 

He noted it is OK for a private business to foster a Christian environment by playing Christian music or displaying items like a Christian flag. He also said it is OK for businesses to hold optional prayer meetings and the like during work hours. 

“Optional is the key word,” Sharp said. “The line is you can’t force employees to follow your faith.” 

He also touched on specific scenarios related to hiring practices, health care and the refusal of certain services. 

Sharp urged leaders with faith-based businesses and organizations to include statements of faith in the mission and vision statements they share with the public, so the public knows what to expect. He also recommended they educate themselves on what federal and state laws have to say about religion and discrimination. 

Lee Stewart, chairman and CEO of Southern Heritage Bank in Cleveland, said he decided to sponsor an event for the community to learn about this issue after the flag the bank flies became a point of discussion. 

He said the local bank “proudly” displays the Christian flag outside its main building and plans to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 

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