Last month, an employee of the Kansas Corporation Commission, a state agency, decided to add a reference to the employee newsletter about how much Christmas meant to him because it is the birthday of “the king” – Jesus Christ.
Jared Bowes’ bosses didn’t think this was such a good idea and removed the material. Bowes’ reaction was unusual: He sent an angry e-mail to all of the commission’s employees explaining his religious motivations.
“Let me be forthright in saying that my sole intent was to extol King Jesus as the ‘reason for the season,’” Bowes wrote.
“I had every intention to be thought-provoking by alluding to Jesus in my original submission,” he went on to say. “Why? Because that’s what Christmas is all about. Christ. The Risen Savior. Born into this world to lay down his life as a ransom for man's sin.”
Bowes, who works as a media specialist in the commission’s Public Affairs Division, also carped, “The world we live in squirms and cringes at even the subtlest hints of Christ (even at Christmas).”
Bowes obviously feels strongly about this faith, which is his right. But that does not give him the right to use government channels, such as an employee newsletter, to engage in proselytism.
As Vickie Sandell Stangl, president of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United, put it, Bowes was wrong to insert a reference to Jesus into the employee newsletter, and he only made things worse by sending the defensive e-mail.
“Jared Bowes works in a position representing ALL the people of Kansas,” Stangl observed. “While he has every right to believe in Christ, and celebrate Christmas according to his beliefs, he does not have the right to use his taxpayer funded office, which includes people of all faiths as well as non-religious individuals, to lecture them about the Savior and the true meaning of Christmas on state time, with state property.”
There is another matter to consider here: Government agencies (and private employers) must be careful about unwanted proselytism in the workplace. Failure to curb it can spark a federal case – literally.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans religious harassment in the workplace. Material published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission makes it clear that no employee may be “subjected to unwelcome statements or conduct that is based on religion and is so severe or pervasive that the individual being harassed reasonably finds the work environment to be hostile or abusive.”
A one-time reference to Jesus in an employee newsletter isn’t likely to meet this threshold. But if it were part of a larger pattern, it could create problems for the commission. Given the law, the decision to remove the material is understandable.
Aside from the legal issues, there are other factors to consider – chiefly, that the commission likely has employees representing many different faith perspectives, and it’s simply not right to allow one of them access to the employee newsletter to preach to everyone else.
Bowes is clearly upset over what happened. He needs to calm down, take a deep breath and realize that there remain many appropriate channels from him to spread his religious views. A government agency isn’t one of them.
P.S. Bowes’ parents have written a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal defending their son. I’m not sure this is helpful.