Tuesday, November 07, 2017

USDA Memo Gives Meat Packing Plants Broad Religious Speech Protection

ADF reported yesterday on a new Guidance Memorandum on First Amendment Policy issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Food Safety (full text), and a related Q&A webpage.  While the Guidance Memorandum appears to flow from President Trump's Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty issued in May (see prior posting), and a follow-on Memo from the Secretary of Agriculture, it also resolves a particular dispute relating to a Michigan meat-packing plant. Federal meat inspectors working at the plant had removed an article placed on the plant's break room table that expressed religious views opposed to same-sex marriage.  Apparently a USDA official, invoking an Obama-era Policy Statement on sexual harassment,  had threatened to withdraw all its inspectors if the article reappeared.  The new Guidance Memorandum gives broad permission for employees and supervisors at meat plants to express religious views, saying in part:
Employees are permitted to engage in religious expression directed at fellow employees and may attempt to persuade other employees of the correctness of their views.  Religious views should be treated the same as any other comparable speech not involving religion. Proselytizing is as entitled to constitutional protection as any other form of speech.
Supervisors are also free to engage in speech about religion.  While supervisors may not impose unfair work conditions on employees who do not share their religious beliefs, their personal views concerning religion are still protected by the First Amendment.  As a result, supervisors may also express their sincere religious views without fear of sanctions.
Some employers in facilities that are inspected by USDA may wish to display religious icons, religious pamphlets, or faith-based messages in publicly available work areas or on public websites.  Others may support employee religious organizations and openly express their own religious beliefs or practices in the workplace.  USDA employees must act to avoid the limiting or chilling of protected speech.
The Guidance Memorandum adds that USDA employees who believe they are subject to discrimination, harassment or intimidation may still exercise their rights.