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Tom Zirpoli: Religious freedom belongs to all

Years ago, when I was a new college graduate, I interviewed for a company in Virginia. Within minutes into the interview, it became clear that my interviewer was more interested in my religious beliefs than my job skills. I quickly understood that unless I professed allegiance to his religious beliefs, I was not getting the job.

My later investigation and discussion with others about this company confirmed my suspicions that the person I interviewed with was not a rogue interviewer, but a company screener to ensure that all employees of that company shared the religious beliefs of the company's owner. People with different religious beliefs were not welcome to work there.

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Some would say that this private company had every right to hire employees who agreed with the owner's religious convictions. I'm fine with that, too. But there is a difference in what people have a right to do and what they should do within a democratic society where religious freedom is a core value.

Indeed, people have the right to do all sorts of things. But let's be clear: The company I interviewed with, now out of business, actively practiced religious discrimination.

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While the company sold itself as a model American company, its practices did not reflect the values upon which America was founded. Nor did it practice the values of a democratic society where everyone, regardless of their religion, is treated equally.

Interestingly, the company imported many of its basic components from China. I'm pretty sure the owner's religious beliefs were not practiced in China, but that is another column.

I'm confused by those who try to tie the act of religious discrimination to the value of religious freedom. Within a democratic and free society, all religious beliefs are protected, valued and honored.

Individually, of course, people are free to believe what they want and to practice their religion accordingly. When acting in the capacity of a government official, however, promoting one religion - your religion - during the conduct of your job is not an act of religious freedom or even free speech. It is the act of a government official promoting one religion over another.

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There are many examples around the world of Christians, Jews and Muslims who believe that their religion is the only true religion to the exclusion and, in some cases, the persecution of others. These practices are not remotely associated with democracy, the concept of religious freedom or the values we share as citizens of the United States.

A truly free society is aware and respectful of other religions, no matter how small that minority religion may be. There is no room within a democratic and free society for intolerance of other religions.

The author of the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, understood the dangers of mixing government and religion. Unfortunately, that understanding has been lost on many politicians today.

Jarod Roll, a professor at the University of Mississippi, writes about the history of religion in the workplace. He states that companies in the early 20th century frequently hired pastors to preach to their workers about the value of working hard. "As you might expect, the company preacher preached the line that encouraged employees not to join unions," Roll wrote. The company I interviewed with also used religion as a tool to control and manipulate employees, and to discriminate against those with different beliefs.

Today, religion is frequently used as a political tool to justify discriminatory practices against women, gays, people of different religions and other minorities. There is nothing American or religious about these practices.

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