FFRF continues objecting to Arizona department head’s promotion of religion

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is continuing to object to a state of Arizona department head’s promotion of religion at work.

In June, FFRF sent a letter concerning Department of Economic Security Director Tim Jeffries’ email to all department employees about his membership in a religious order, the Order of Malta, soliciting messages from them to take to a prominent pilgrimage site (Lourdes) in France. Jeffries had an assistant, a subordinate within the department, track responses, then sent several updates about his trip filled with religious references to the thousands of employees who work at the department.

FFRF reminded the state that it is unconstitutional for Jeffries to use Department of Economic Security resources and staff to promote his personal religious views, and asked him to cease doing so.

“The Supreme Court has said time and again that the Constitution ‘mandates religious neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,'” FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Jeffries. “Government officials can worship, participate and pray in religious events in their personal capacities. But they are not permitted to provide credibility or prestige to their religion by using the weight of their government office and government title to compel staff to track letters for a personal religious vacation, or use their government-furnished email to recount details of that personal religious trip to all employees.” 

The state of Arizona, via legal counsel, responded a few weeks later contending that Jeffries had done nothing wrong. It said Jeffries’ email were private, even if they used a government account. It asserted that his solicitation of employees’ messages for a pilgrimage site was not substantially different than him asking for names to shout out during a hypothetical visit to Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers (“hallowed ground” to some, it claimed). Furthermore, it asserted, Jeffries was not exploiting official resources to promote religion.

FFRF takes issue with all these assertions in a new letter. It gives several other examples where Jeffries has used official resources to promote his religion, including beginning employee meetings with prayers and giving presentations as director that laud the “7 Tenets of Catholic Social Teaching.”

“When Jeffries ‘goes to work and performs the duties he is paid to perform, he speaks not as an individual, but as a public employee,'” Ziegler replies to Civil Division Chief Counsel Paul Watkins in the office of the Arizona attorney general, citing a U.S. Circuit Court ruling. “It is irrelevant that state employees are permitted to use work accounts to send and receive personal emails. The email addresses, the time and the computers are all government resources. Jeffries only has access to these resources because he is an employee and representative of the state of Arizona.” Ziegler also points out that two employees conversing about personal matters at work is not the same as the director of a state department emailing thousands of subordinate employees.

The situation is exacerbated by an email Jeffries recently sent after the state’s response made the news calling those who disagree with him “haters” and accusing them of “covert attacks” on him. Multiple employees of his department have contacted FFRF to attest that they are hesitant to speak out against what they perceive as government endorsement of religion by their ultimate supervisor because they fear for their jobs if they do. One employee described Jeffries’ recent emails about the controversy as “insulting” and “creating a very adversarial work environment.” Another said, “I know I’m not the only one who feels this way and it’s not conducive to a friendly work environment.” Hundreds of department employees are atheists or agnostics, and hundreds more are non-Christians, extrapolating from a recent Pew survey about America’s changing religious landscape. These employees are made to feel like they are outsiders on the basis of their lack of Christian belief, FFRF contends.

And the comparison made between Lourdes in France and Wisconsin’s Lambeau Field is fallacious, FFRF says.

“Promoting a trip to a football stadium, while not religious, does not ‘favor nonreligion’ because there is no endorsement of atheistic views implicit in that promotion,” Ziegler writes. “A more relevant football analogy is a situation FFRF deals with regularly, when football coaches at public schools lead students in prayer. This is an unconstitutional promotion of religion.”

All FFRF requests is that government employees focus on their work.

“A coach merely coaching football, performing his or her job duties without reference to any personal religious beliefs, is neutrality,” Ziegler writes. “This is all FFRF is asking of Jeffries—that he do his job while remaining neutral on the subject of religion.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with nearly 24,000 members all over the country, including more than 500 in Arizona.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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