A situation in Des Moines, Iowa, this week has painted a perfect picture of what could happen if Religious Right forces succeed in their push for overly broad "religious accommodation" laws for the workplace.
Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) currently displays ads on all of its buses. Most recently, the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers have purchased space on many DART buses for this message: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."
After hearing complaints from some in the community, DART initially tried to remove the ads. The public bus system claimed the message was offending riders. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa told DART, as a government-run bus system, they could not discriminate.
Now, an employee has refused to drive buses featuring the atheist ads. Angela Shiel, who has been a DART driver for four years, said the message went against her Christian faith.
The bus system told Shiel that drivers cannot choose which buses they drive and has presented her with four options: Agree to drive any bus; resume her current position knowing that if she refuses to drive any particular bus again, she will be fired; become a paratransit driver (only a few of those buses have advertising); or resign.
Not surprisingly, some are claiming DART has violated Shiel's right to practice her religious beliefs. Attorney Roxanne Conlin told the Des Moines Register that DART must reasonably accommodate a validly held religious belief.
Though AU supports religious freedom, this accommodation claim goes too far. Of course employers should try to respect the religious beliefs of their employees, but not to the extent that it undermines the rights of others.
"As a government agency operating a public forum, DART and all of its employees, including its drivers, are required to follow the First Amendment," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa ACLU. "Since DART managers cannot claim a religious reason to censor bus ads, neither can drivers."
Religious Right groups, however, keep pushing for more and more exemptions to do just that. They want to "protect" those in the workplace who want to impose their religion on others. Americans United has been working for years to make sure state and federal legislation doesn't allow this.
Besides, if Shiel did receive this religious accommodation, where would we draw the line? Are there other ads that "violate" her conscience?
We applaud DART for standing up for free speech.