Government Worker Can’t Proselytize, Court Rules

A federal appeals court has sided with California county officials who barred an employee from proselytizing on the job.

On May 1, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Berry v. Dept. of Social Services, that officials of the Tehama County Department of Social Services did not violate the constitutional rights of an employee by ordering him to stop displaying religious messages in his workspace and using a conference room for group prayer sessions.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling that department officials were justified in barring Daniel Berry from promoting his religious beliefs while in his official capacity. The 9th Circuit said Tehama officials’ “need to avoid possible violations” of the First Amendment principle of church-state separation “outweighs the restriction’s curtailment of Mr. Berry’s religious speech on the job.”

Berry brought his lawsuit against Tehama county officials in 2002. He argued that county officials barred him from sharing his religious beliefs with clients, ordered him to remove a “Happy Birthday Jesus” sign from his cubicle and told him to keep his Bible inside of his desk. He argued that all of the actions taken against him by the department amounted to religious discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The 9th Circuit concluded that Tehama County officials did not violate any of Berry’s constitutional rights.

The court found that the department did not bar its employees from discussing religion among themselves, only that they refrain from such discussion with clients. Employees are allowed to display religious items, except in areas where a client might presume government endorsement of religion. Staff members also were allowed to conduct prayer meetings in the break room or outside, but were prohibited from doing so in the conference room.

All of the county’s policies were reasonable, according to the 9th Circuit, and were necessary to ensure the department did not run afoul of the separation of church and state.