Religious Speech Unwelcome In Arizona State Employees’ Training

A photo of meeting notes taken by a Arizona Department of Economic Security staff member. [Photo courtesy James T. Harris]

A photo of meeting notes taken by a Arizona Department of Economic Security staff member has sparked outrage due to an anti-religion admonition to State employees. The photo, which was taken during a staff meeting of a unit of the Office of Professional Development, advises staff that the topic of religion is forbidden.

According to Kathy Greene, Chief Privacy Officer with DES, the Office of Professional Development (OPD) “designs the curriculum and conduct training courses for new and current employees.”

The list specifically notes:

  • Topic of Religion is no longer allowed in class or in the office
  • No religious quotes
  • No religious sayings
  • Avoid mentioning blessings

The photo was shared on Facebook by radio show host James T. Harris after an interview with former DES director Tim Jeffries. Jeffries, a successful businessman, was asked by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to head up the Department, which had been plagued by mismanagement.

Click on image to join the Facebook discussion

However, after Jeffries, a devout Catholic, began cleaning house, he became the target of disgruntled bureaucrats, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Coalition of Arizona, and the press.

In June 2015, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office responded to complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) against Jeffries, accusing him of unconstitutionally promoting his religious views before and during a trip to Lourdes. After reviewing the letter, Arizona Attorney General’s Office Civil Division Chief Counsel Paul Watkins responded to the Wisconsin-based organization by comparing Lourdes to Lambeau Field.

“First, as any Wisconsin organization is likely aware, many people venerate Lambeau Field as a sacred shrine to the Packers (the Packers’ official website proudly refers to Lambeau Field as “Hallowed Ground” and as “one of the most revered stadiums in the country”),” wrote Watkins.” Would your constitutional objections remain if Mr. Jeffries waxed rhapsodic about his reverence for the “hallowed ground” of Lambeau Field and offered to prayerfully whisper each employee’s name while watching video highlights of Aaron Rodgers’ successful “Hail Mary” passes from the 2015-2016 season? Conversely, many people view Lourdes as a small town in France worth visiting for reasons that have nothing to do with the Roman Catholic faith. Would Mr. Jeffries’ emails have been unconstitutional in your mind if he had stated that he was planning on visiting Lourdes to study the architecture of the buildings there, and offered to bring back postcards?”

“Mr. Jeffries internal emails about his personal trip were private speech, did not bear the endorsement of the State, and did not violate the Constitution. Furthermore, if DES were to adopt a rule banning religious speech, in internal workplace emails, as you suggest, it would violate the First Amendment,” continued Watkins.

Watkins concluded: “[T]here is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” Years later, seven justices of a divided Supreme Court agreed with this statement. A majority also held that “private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression.”

In her email to the ADI, Greene claimed that the “State of Arizona respects an employee’s right to express their freedom of religion, “ but she claimed that employee training is a different matter. “Our expectation is that the training is based solely on policy and operations curriculum.”

State officials may have a difficult time preventing employees from asking for blessings in a whispered prayer or two if the training involves testing.

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