Today’s guest column is written by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The views expressed in this piece belong to Jones and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.
A new seminary initiative to “equip believers on integrating faith in the marketplace” may run afoul of workplace discrimination laws.
Moody Theological Seminary's "Faith, Work and Economics Initiative" is explicitly evangelistic, and advertises itself as an educational opportunity for business owners and other professionals interested in so-called "workplace ministry." The free lectures are designed to complement the school’s recently launched emphasis in "vocational stewardship" available for students enrolled in its various graduate programs.
On the surface, this might not seem like a particularly noteworthy development at an institution that serves as one of the country's great bastions of evangelicalism. Many evangelicals have long held that faith and work should be integrated, and the idea that business can function as ministry isn't new, either—resulting in a perennial conflict between "...do all to the glory of God" and "render unto Caesar's what is Caesar's."
But the Supreme Court's ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell places Moody’s initiative in a new and more troubling context. Now that business owners have the legal right to express certain religious beliefs through their corporations, the legal boundaries separating secular workplaces from sectarian ministries are less distinct than ever.
It seems that Moody intends to capitalize on that development.
In a statement available on Moody's website Dr. Sajan Matthews, a professor of systematic theology, explained the school’s motivation: "The reality is that those in the workplace are often the most unreached people group in our lives. Work needs to be viewed as a way in which we can offer back to God something out of the gifts He has bestowed upon us and thus glorify Him and also bring about human flourishing."
The website goes to describe a September lecture delivered by Moody trustee and corporate executive Richard Warren in glowing terms. "During his address Warren shared insights about how his companies have been transformed by developing Christ-centered mission and vision statements, offering lunchtime Bible studies and hiring a full-time chaplain," it noted.
Warren, who is the chairman of Weldaloy Products Company, also described starting Bible studies for employees at his secular company. "When I started the Bible studies I did a tally, and we had three people in the company who were professing believing Christians," he said, explaining that the company hired Christians and non-Christians alike. He added, "Today, out of roughly 100 employees we have only 20 or 25 (people) who are not yet Christians."
Workplace discrimination laws don’t rate a mention on Moody's website, but they should have: The Civil Rights Act’s Title VII expressly prohibits religiously motivated discrimination at secular, for-profit companies. These companies can’t discriminate on the basis of religion during the hiring process, but—more relevant to the topic at hand—they also can't use their religious beliefs to create a hostile work environment. That means employers can’t proselytize employees at work.
At least for now. To date, employers haven’t challenged Title VII's restrictions based on this year’s Hobby Lobby verdict. But it’s likely that someone eventually will, and it’s still unclear how the courts would react to this argument.
It’s reasonable to wonder if Moody hopes to encourage such a legal challenge. Its initiative is primarily funded by the Kern Family Foundation; on its website, the foundation says it has "a deep and abiding appreciation for excellent pastoral leadership," since pastors "transform the moral fabric of our society."
The Kern Family Foundation is no stranger to the culture war. It’s also a major funder of voucher programs, which frequently channel public funds to private religious schools. (My employer, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, opposes voucher programs for that reason.)
Employers taking Moody’s courses in “vocational stewardship” would do well to remember they still have an obligation to Caesar—and to their employees, who deserve a workplace free of religious pressure.
Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones.