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Question - When I arrive for my shifts at the fire station the duty battalion commander requires the crew to assemble in the apparatus bay to say a morning prayer. I do not practice any particular religion or have any particular belief system and walked away from the morning gathering not desiring to participate. I was called into the battalion commander’s office and placed on notice the morning prayer was a “requirement” and the next time I walked away from the prayer gathering, I would be disciplined and possibly terminated. What are my rights?

Answer – this is an issue for those who do not chose to participate in morning prayer or other displays related to a religious belief and the short answer is that you do not have to participate in those session as your rights to refuse are protected. 

Let’s go back to the First Amendment of the US Constitution which indicates everyone has the right to practice their own religion or no religion. The First Amendment also guarantees the separation of church and state whereas a state action (your department) has to respect and honor your beliefs.

Included in the First Amendment is the Establishment Clause prohibiting government from encouraging, endorsing or promoting religion in any way. While one might read this to mean that the Clause was meant to preclude endorsement or support of some particular religion, it is important to note that the Clause also prohibits the endorsement of religion generally over non-religion.

In 1962, the New York Board of Regents induced a mandatory recitation of a daily school prayer reading, “almighty god, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country" and the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional and struck it down in Engel v. Vitale (370 U.S. 421 (1962). Justice Black indicated in his opinion that, "it is no part of the official business of government to compose official prayers for any group of American people to recite as part of a religious program carried out by the Government

Directly related to the main question noted above, a police officer claimed that department officials violated his freedom of religion by allegedly holding a group prayer during an official meeting and subsequently assigning him to non-law enforcement duties as punishment for his non-participation. A federal appeals court ruled that, if the facts were as described by the plaintiff, the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity on an Establishment Clause claim. It was clearly established law that the prayer was state-sponsored during the official meeting and that ordering the officer, against his will, to stand nearby while his colleagues engaged in a prayer, and then humiliating and punishing him for non-conformance, constituted religious coercion. Marrero-Mendez v. Calixto-Rodriguez, #14-2030, 2016 U.S. App. Lexis 13178 (1st Cir.).

So if that is the case, how does a department balance the need of the employees’ rights to pray or exercise their religious rights while on duty and the constitution? Religious accommodations occur in many public agencies and here are a couple of cases involving police departments faced with a request to not work certain days of the week due to their beliefs as Seventh Day Adventists which holds that working from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a prohibited activity. This particular officer was offered the accommodation of using his vacation and shift trades to accommodate his beliefs. He was terminated for abandoning his post in the middle of his shift. In Beadle v. Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department the courts indicated that the department made the necessary accommodation and the employee essentially self-terminated. 

In another case, N.Y City Transit Authority v. State, Executive Dept., a Seventh Day Adventist requested Fridays and Saturdays off to observe her Sabbath. The NYCTA declined her request, as it would violate the provisions of her collective bargaining agreement governing her position and upon appeal, the New York Supreme Court, appellate division, stated that the NYCTA need not accommodate a Sabbath observer where the accommodations are clearly prohibited by the nondiscriminatory provisions of the bargaining agreement.

As a firefighter you have the right to pray on the job as religion is a belief system and those beliefs requiring employees to engage in certain practices at work – wearing head coverings, praying and taking certain days off. Title VII recognizes that religion is a unique situation and requires reasonable accommodation as long as it does not create an undue hardship on the employer. 

It is interesting to note that many departments participate in funerals or other services with a religious overtone or have chaplains that offer support services for the firefighters and community. We get around the religious state sponsored action by not requiring our members to attend a funeral at a church, synagogue or mosque and allow those attendees to wear their uniform out of respect to the firefighter who died.

Chaplains originate from the various denominations reflecting the beliefs of many of the firefighters. Chaplains provide an invaluable service to our firefighters and communities providing counseling and other services that should not infringe on the rights and liberties of your firefighters (i.e. preaching in the fire station). Following that neutral restriction, you are in a safe harbor.

In a landmark court case found in Marsh V. Chambers463 U.S. 783 (1983),  the Supreme Court held that government funding for chaplains was constitutional because of the "unique history" of the United States. It was interesting to note that three days before the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791, containing the Establishment clause, the federal legislature authorized hiring a chaplain for opening sessions with prayer. Chaplains still perform an opening service in Congress, some courts and certainly for our fire and police departments without violating the Establishment Clause.

So the answer to the question is NO you do not have to engage in the prayers of your officer or department and YES you have the right to practice your religious beliefs at work as long as it does not create an undue hardship on the employer.

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