Forest Service Approves Christian Employee Group (November 1997)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Chief Michael Dombeck of the Forest Service have been asked to investigate the designation of “Forest Service Christian Association” as an official employee group.
On behalf of a Forest Service employee as well as its members throughout the United States, the Freedom From Religion Foundation protested the official recognition of the Christian association, known as “ACROSS (Association of Christians Reaching Out In Service and Support).”

The Foundation, in letters to the Forest Service, and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, pointed out that this action violates President Clinton’s new “Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Workplace.”

“Governmental time, money, equipment, postage, mail service and email should not and cannot be used for any religious purpose,” wrote Foundation president Anne Gaylor.

“An officially designated Christian employee group is very different from accommodating reasonable religious or nonreligious expression by individuals.”

Gaylor noted that the group has a “stated purpose of influencing federal policy” and clearly intends to “proselytize on government time, email and even take excused absence with pay to proselytize.”

According to Clinton’s guidelines, it is expressly forbidden for practices to create “the appearance, to a reasonable observer, of an official endorsement of religion” by a federal agency.

“Federal employees are paid to perform official work, not to engage in personal religious or ideological campaigns during work hours,” reads Clinton’s memo.

The Foundation specifically asked that the Forest Service immediately revoke the “official employee organization” designation and inform Forest Service employees of this action.

Pending further information requested by the Foundation from the Forest Service, it is unclear whether ACROSS (identified interchangeably as the “Forest Service Christian Association”) would be eligible for federal funding.

But ACROSS’s own material, apparently emailed at-large to Forest Service employees, gives the impression that it has access to all employees via government email, and intends to publish an electronic newsletter and directory of Christian employees.

The Christian group cites as precedent for establishing the Forest Service Christian Association the overturned Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. It also cites approval in the past of various federal employee groups based on ethnic/racial lines and of a group for people with disabilities in government.

“The First Amendment does not forbid government from recognizing the diversity of ethnic or racial minorities, but it does forbid anything which appears to establish religion,” noted Gaylor.

Clinton’s new guidelines for “faith in the federal workplace” permit nonharassing private expression of religious or nonreligious belief by federal employees, including the possibility of the congregation of like-minded individuals for private devotionals. But the memo says nothing about the creation of federally-recognized, religiously-segregated employee groups.

The Forest Service announced its official recognition of ACROSS as an employee organization in a memo dated September 5, 1997, released by Luther Bruse, Director, Civil Rights, U.S. Forest Service.

Secretary Dan Glickman, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, may be written at 1400 Independent Ave. SW, Washington DC 20250.

Freedom From Religion Foundation