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First Amendment and Religious Beliefs: Questions and Answers

 
What are religious beliefs?

Under federal regulations, religious beliefs include theistic beliefs (such as those that include a belief in God) as well as non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” See 29 C.F.R. §1605.1. Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences are not religious beliefs protected by Title VII or USDA prohibitions against religious discrimination.

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Why is religious expression a workplace issue at USDA?

Employees should expect to find a diversity of religious backgrounds at USDA and the citizens that we serve. Laws and policies have changed, and all USDA employees need to be aware of their responsibility to prevent religious discrimination, including discrimination against religious expression.

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How does USDA interpret its non-discrimination regulations in accordance with the First Amendment?

USDA interprets its regulations consistent with the requirements of the First Amendment, and all actions taken by USDA must comport with First Amendment principles. No regulation should be interpreted to impinge upon rights protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or to require individuals or entities to enact or enforce codes that punish the exercise of such rights.

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Does the Secretary’s First Amendment Policy encompass speech regarding same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual morality?

Opinions about same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual morality are all matters of public importance. Moreover, people often have different perspectives on these topics, which are sometimes informed by their religious beliefs, and feel the need to discuss them. USDA respects the First Amendment rights of USDA personnel, as well as non-USDA personnel working at facilities inspected by USDA, to share their varying viewpoints on these topics, whether through oral discussion, the display or distribution of literature, or other means.

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What are the laws and policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion at USDA?

Some of the laws and policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion at USDA include the following:

  • The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act states that Federal Agencies cannot "discriminate for or against any employee or applicant for employment on the basis of conduct which does not adversely affect the performance of the employee or applicant or the performance of others" [5 USC 2302(b)].
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, as well as employment agencies and unions, from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. [42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1)].
  • USDA regulations provide that “[n]o agency, officer, or employee of the USDA shall, on the grounds of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status, family/parental status, income derived from a public assistance program, political beliefs, or gender identity, exclude from participation in, deny the benefits of, or subject to discrimination any person in the United States under any program or activity conducted by the USDA.” [7 C.F.R. §15d.3].

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What should I do if I believe I have been discriminated against because of my religion?

There are five avenues of redress available to a Federal employee who wishes to resolve a conflict or file a complaint of discrimination based on religion: (1) Alternative Dispute Resolution; (2) Agency discrimination complaint procedure; (3) Agency or Union grievance procedure; (4) Office of Special Counsel; and (5) Appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board (for allegations involving personnel actions that are otherwise appealable to the Board). The employee who wishes to pursue conflict resolution or file a discrimination complaint using one of the above options should contact his or her Agency's Office of Civil Rights for specific information.

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Where can I go if I have further questions about First Amendment and religious expression issues at USDA?

  • USDA Civil Rights, Labor and Employment Law Division, Policy Section, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Office of the General Counsel, Washington, DC 20250, 202-720-1760.
  • Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Office of the Secretary, Washington, DC 20250, 202-720-2032.
  • You can also contact your Agency's Civil Rights and Human Resources Offices for further information on complaint procedures.

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Last Modified Nov 06, 2017