Firefighters and Religious Expression: A Two-Edged Sword

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of articles in which Curt Varone will address questions on important fire service legal issues. If you would like to submit a question, please email Shannon Pieper at spieper@lexipol.com.

I’m a company officer; I’m also a very religious person. Everyone on my crew also identifies as Christian, and we attend the same church. If we all agree, is it OK for me to start our shifts with a prayer? What about using the department email to share devotionals?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the “establishment” of a religion by government. As interpreted, this clause means government cannot support or favor one religion over another. It does not prohibit individual government employees from praying at work, alone or collectively. The challenge is drawing the line between the free practice of a religion and the endorsement of a certain religion or religious viewpoint.

Because drawing this line can be a challenge, the safest bet is to avoid religious expressions in the workplace. That is not, however, mandatory—and can even lead to allegations of religious discrimination. If you choose to continue your practice of group prayers, the problem may arise when someone is assigned to the station who does not share the same religious viewpoints. If that person is treated differently (real or perceived) it can lead to allegations that you as the officer, and the department as the employer, are endorsing the “establishment” of one religion.

The problem is not so much driven by the intent of those expressing their religious beliefs, but rather by the perception of those who are not. This can be very difficult to comprehend and accept. Consider this hypothetical, which purposefully avoids a denominational reference:

A new firefighter is assigned to a station where the current firefighters belong to a religion that worships snakes. These folks pray as a group several times a day and follow strict dietary restrictions. The new firefighter is permitted to share in meals but is not allowed to cook for the group. He is offered the opportunity to join in prayers but when he chooses not to, he is informed by the officer that he is not permitted to be in the day room while prayers are being offered.

How long before the firefighter starts to feel shunned, awkward and uncomfortable? Real or perceived, every negative comment from the officer or other members of the station will likely become magnified. If the firefighter is for any reason experiencing problems (getting along with colleagues or perhaps has some competency-related issues), it will be impossible for fire department leaders to factor out religion as a contributing factor. The impact of the company officer, as the designated representative of management, in endorsing certain religious views is even more troublesome, opening both the officer and the department to liability.

The use of the department email system to share devotionals can be even more problematic because it may be viewed as government endorsing a religious viewpoint.

The use of the department email system to share devotionals can be even more problematic because it may be viewed as government endorsing a religious viewpoint. This situation is compounded when the person sending the messages is an officer. The higher the rank, the greater the risk.

The risk is lessened if the email system is used merely to contact members and keep them informed of meetings, etc., as opposed to promoting one’s religious views, and assuming the department permits the email system’s use for similar non-religious purposes by all members of the department. Last year, the Washington Supreme Court found the Spokane Valley Fire Department violated the First Amendment when it disciplined a fire captain for sharing religious-themed emails over the fire department email system while permitting the sharing of similar non-religious viewpoints. That case resulted in a $1 million settlement.

My advice is to avoid religious expressions in the workplace. However, the law does not mandate that such religious expressions be prohibited, and in fact may protect them to a certain extent. This protection is indeed a two-edged sword, as it opens the door to allegations that those expressing their religious views in the workplace are violating the Constitutional rights of others.

Curt Varone

CURT VARONE has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer’s Legal Handbook(2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

More Posts

Firefighter Free Speech
Learn what departments can & can’t do

Related Posts

Back to Top