Can I legally make my business a Christian Workplace?

Stuart Rosenfeldt, JD

Many of my clients have inquired whether they, as Christian businessmen, can declare their business to be “Christian” without risking a charge of religious discrimination. The answer depends in large measure on what they mean by the term “Christian workplace.” If the intention is to only hire persons of the Christian faith then in most cases the employer would be violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which not only forbids such discrimination but also requires employers to accommodate the religious views and practices of employees unless such accommodation would create an undue hardship.

Churches are excluded from the religious discrimination prohibition in the Civil Rights Act and are protected by the First Amendment. However, faith-based organizations do not have the absolute protection from government interference that churches enjoy. 

In order to legally limit its applicant pool to practicing Christians, a faith-based organization must carry its burden of proving that being Christian is a bona-fide occupational qualification of the job. That burden may not be too difficult to meet if the faith-based organization has sufficient documentation of its need for Christian workers as evidenced by its Vision, Mission Statement and Bylaws. I recommend that any faith-based organization wanting to limit its employee base to members of the Christian faith conduct a “stress test” to assure that their practice can withstand judicial scrutiny. This analysis is highly dependent upon the nature of the organization’s work. For example, a non-profit engaged in evangelistic activity has a much better chance of defending its practice of hiring only Christians, but a faith-based homeless shelter will have a more difficult challenge.

With respect to for-profit companies, it is difficult to conceive of any “bona-fide occupational qualification” that would justify refusing to hire non-Christians. Moreover, the exclusiveness of such a policy contradicts biblical dictates and, in my opinion, is abhorrent to our values as Christians. Our primary purpose is to share the Good News and limiting our audience to those who already know it is irrational and self-defeating. It is analogous to Yeshua confining his ministry to the well-behaved people only.

When I engage my clients in dialogue on the meaning of the term “Christian Workplace,” I usually find that discrimination is not their motivation. Rather, they are looking for employees who share their “values,” which are, of course, based upon our understanding and devotion to the Bible. To avoid unnecessary controversy, I counsel my clients to refer to their workplaces as a “Faithful” workplace and define the characteristics of that workplace in religious-neutral terms. For example, a Faithful Workplace seeks employees who are fair minded, empathetic, non-judgmental, concerned with the biblical proscription to give a fair day’s work to their employers with integrity.

A faithful workplace is a two-way street. Employers must act consistently with the same values expected of the employees. Indeed, a Faithful Workplace furthers the Kingdom by demonstrating those same values to its employees as modeled by the owner. Be assured that an owner giving lip service alone to forming a Faithful Workplace without “walking the walk” is unlikely to secure the fruit that is available; rather he is more likely to be perceived as a hypocrite.

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