I’m a state employee in Virginia, and I’m not appointed. Although I work at an agency, I am technically part of the executive branch, which means I work for Governor Glenn Youngkin. I am also an atheist.
I’m pretty high up in my agency, which means I work directly with Governor Youngkin’s staff a lot on public events: speeches, ribbon cuttings, announcements, meetings, etc. During his speeches, he and his wife repeatedly mention their Christian faith, and they speak as though the entire audience is Christian as well.
Here’s what bothers me. One of Governor Youngkin’s habits is to open a public event or speech with a prayer (or a minister does it), heavily reference his relationship with Jesus Christ throughout his remarks, and request us to bow our heads and say “amen.” In one instance, he said all of us at a public meeting were “created in God’s image” and I was so uncomfortable and annoyed, but I hid my frustration. I refuse to bow my head or close my eyes or clasp my hands or say “amen” on command or applaud an anecdote about the power of believing in Jesus Christ. I merely stand or sit where I am and say nothing, looking off into the distance. Several days ago, my big boss (a Youngkin appointee) noticed that I wasn’t bowing my head during the opening prayer at a public event, and he gave me a puzzled look and then an eyebrow raise. Although I’m uncomfortable, I’ve never said anything nor drawn attention to myself. I doubt anyone else in my office knows how I feel. But…
(To be clear, I don’t think Governor Youngkin is actively trying to convert people. I think he and his staff have been around people who believe exactly like them for so long that they don’t realize that employees of other faiths and no faiths exist as well.)
In response, “employment lawyer Jon Hyman of Wickens Herzer Panza, who writes the incredibly useful Ohio Employer Law Blog and is the author of The Employer Bill of Rights: A Manager’s Guide to Workplace Law,” weighed in as follows.
The workplace and religion do not mix, whether the workplace is public or private. An employer cannot force its employees to conform to, follow, or practice their employer’s chosen religious practices and beliefs. Anything different violates Title VII in either a public or private workplace. Moreover, in a government workplace there are additional First Amendment concerns. A state or local government does not violate the First Amendment by starting government meetings with a prayer, as the Supreme Court held in 2014 in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Still, there is a vast difference between holding a prayer and forcing participation in it, even nominally such a bowing one’s head or otherwise appearing to be reverent. The latter is unlawful (and in this case likely unconstitutional).
So yeah, that’s our governor and his administration, pressuring people who do not hold their religious beliefs to conform. If that’s not a violation of the separation of church and state, which is really fundamental to our democracy and to our nation, what would be?!?