White House Guidelines: The Federal Workplace

First, let’s focus briefly on government workplaces. For over ten years, the U.S. government has recognized the importance of religious discrimination in the workplace. On August 14, 1997, President Clinton established The White House Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace; they have been continued by Presidents Bush and Obama. Although these guidelines are not binding in the private sector, they serve as examples of the kinds of policies that may be useful to adopt.

The guidelines begin by outlining general policies concerning religious expression in the federal workplace (i.e., the White House, federal departments, agencies, etc.) and then list the specific behaviors that are permitted. These guidelines were meant to answer the most frequently encountered questions, but bear in mind that actual cases may be more complicated and lead to other results.
For your reference we have excerpted some major points from the White House Guidelines. As you review them, please take note of the challenges that can emerge when conflicting “rights” or “entitlements” meet head on. Click here For a full copy of the Guidelines

The excerpts from the White House Guidelines follow:

[Federal] Agencies:

  • shall permit personal religious expression to the greatest extent possible, consistent with requirements of law and interests in workplace efficiency;
  • shall not discriminate against employees on the basis of religion, require religious participation or nonparticipation as a condition of employment, or permit religious harassment;
  • shall accommodate employees’ exercise of their religion;
  • shall treat all employees with the same respect and consideration, regardless of their religion, or lack thereof.

(A) Religious Expression

[Federal] Agencies:

  • shall not restrict personal religious expression except where the employee’s interest in that expression is outweighed by the interest in efficient provision of services or where the expression intrudes upon the legitimate rights of other employees or creates an official endorsement of religion;
  • may not regulate employees’ personal religious expression on the basis of its content or viewpoint;
  • may regulate an employee’s private speech, including religious speech, where the employee’s interest in that speech is outweighed by the interest in efficient delivery of services, but this authority should be exercised evenhandedly and with restraint, especially in a country where the free expression of disagreement is valued so highly;
  • are not required to permit employees to use work time to pursue religious or ideological agendas.

[Federal] Employees:

  • may discuss their faith-based beliefs with other employees but may not attempt to coerce coworkers into following the same beliefs;
  • may not impose their religious beliefs on individuals or organizations served by the company;
  • may wear religious attire, religious jewelry, or clothing;
  • may invite coworkers to religious services, but the invitation must in no way be coercive;
  • may meet other employees for religious study and/or prayer during lunch in a conference room that is scheduled for use on a first-come, first-served basis;
  • may be exempted from an assignment deemed objectionable on religious grounds.

(B) Religious Discrimination

[Federal] Agencies:

  • may not discriminate against employees on the basis of their religion, religious beliefs, or views concerning religion;
  • may not promote, refuse to promote, hire, refuse to hire, or otherwise favor or disfavor an employee or potential employee because of his or her religion, religious beliefs, or views concerning religion;
  • may not explicitly or implicitly insist that an employee participate in religious activities as a condition of continued employment, promotion, salary increases, preferred job assignments, or any other incidents of employment;
  • may not insist that an employee refrain from participating in religious activities outside the workplace;
  • should protect employees from being subjected to a hostile environment or religious harassment.

(C) Accommodation of Religious Exercise

Agencies must accommodate employees’ exercise of their religion unless that accommodation would impose undue hardship on the agency’s operations, but any hardship must be real and not speculative. Such an accommodation should be done at a minimal cost to the agency… Religious accommodation cannot be denied if the agency regularly permits similar accommodations for nonreligious purposes.


  • may keep a Bible or other scriptures on their desk and read it during breaks;
  • may observe the Sabbath or other religious holidays.

(D) Establishment of Religion

Supervisors and employees must not engage in activities or expression that leaves a reasonable observer with the impression that the government was endorsing or denigrating religion or a particular religion; the context of the expression and/or whether official channels of communication are used should be taken into account.