- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

"Have a blessed day," a phrase used particularly by Christians from evangelical or Pentecostal black churches, has come under attack lately.
Seemingly innocuous, it's used as part farewell, part benediction among friends, in and out of church, even from conductors to passengers on the Metro subway system.
But when Liz Anderson, an employee at U.S. Freightway Logistics (USFL) office in Indianapolis, e-mailed the greeting to a customer, she got hit with a reprimand to stop mixing her religious beliefs with customer service.
Her refusal to stop doing so has resulted in an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a possible federal lawsuit against her company, dozens of radio interviews and star billing on the front pages of the Indianapolis Star.
She says she has a First Amendment right to express her religious beliefs. USF Logistics says she can't do it on company time.
"I have Jesus on my side," says the mother of two grown children, "so I'm not worried about this case."
The morphing of spirituality and the workplace in the past 10 years reached a point where the EEOC reported a 29 percent spike from 1992 to 1998 in the number of religious-based discrimination charges.
Seven in 10 employees talk about their own faith in the workplace, according to a 1998 Lutheran Brotherhood survey. In 1997, President Clinton issued guidelines that gave wide-ranging protection to religious speech of 2 million federal workers.
Because even innocent religious practices can cause problems at work, Sens. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Daniel R. Coats, Indiana Republican, introduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act in 1997 to protect workers in private industry. That bill failed to pass.
Mrs. Anderson's troubles started last June, when she sent an e-mail to Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash., software giant that uses USFL's Indianapolis facility. When she ended her weekly shipping report to Microsoft employee Mark LaRussa with "Have a blessed day," Mr. LaRussa complained to her company.
When Mrs. Anderson was advised by her supervisor to stop using the phrase, she balked.
"I've been saying this for about 30 years," since her late 20s, she says. "I've been employed with them four years and I've been doing this since Day One. They were comfortable with my religion. They asked me to pray at office gatherings, and supervisors would ask me to pray for family members. They saw me reading a Bible and they knew.
"My supervisor asked me how I'd feel if someone came up and said, 'Heil, Hitler' or 'Heil, Satan'? How could he link Jesus with violence? How can you compare my Jesus with Hitler?
"Even if someone says to me 'Salaam aleikem,' (a Muslim greeting), they mean me no harm. They are wishing me peace. As long as you come in peace and harmony, what is the harm? The people who wear white hoods have more rights than I do."
After Mrs. Anderson ignored her company's instructions to stop saying "Have a blessed day," she received a written reprimand June 23 saying she could be fired.
USFL also issued a memo instructing its employees to refrain from using religious, personal or political statements in dealings with co-workers or with clients; in other words, regulating most forms of speech in the workplace. In turn, Mrs. Anderson contacted her church, Phillips CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal) Church in Indianapolis, which retained a lawyer for her. She also began talking to the press.
When contacted by the Indianapolis Star in October, Microsoft had backed down on its stance, stating that Mr. LaRussa had "overreacted" to Mrs. Anderson's greeting. The newspaper has since editorially taken her side in the dispute.
"The word 'blessed' has origins in the Bible, but so do plenty of other words, like diligence, kindness, knowledge and wisdom," the Star editorialized on Jan. 3. "If ideas or words that can be traced to the Bible are going to be forbidden, there won't be much communication left. Our culture and language are full of them."
The phrase is especially part of the American black experience.
"They call it church language," says Patrice Sheppard, assistant pastor of the Living Word Church in the southwestern corner of the District. "African-Americans say 'Have a blessed day' and Anglos say 'God bless you.'
"If you're having a blessed day, then God is with you. It's a colloquialism in the African-American church."
Others say it's part of black church tradition to continually praise God whether in or out of work.
"When people ask us how we are doing, we say we are blessed and highly favored of God," says Bishop Juanita Turner, pastor of New Covenant Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Colmar Manor. She says the majority of her members use the expression.
The Rev. Bernard Richardson, chaplain at Howard University, calls it an " 'evangelical tradition.' "
"I've heard it in white churches and black churches," he says. "What's happening in terms of our culture is people are feeling freer to use the language of their church and their faith than ever before."
Not everyone was thrilled with the increase of God-talk at work.
" 'Have a blessed day' is a religious statement and it's not appropriate for a secular organization to be making it," says Matt Cherry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst, N.Y.
"For an employee to say she has a right to make religious statements is not a matter of religious freedom. The company has a right to determine what employees say. If a customer is offended enough to complain, that speaks for itself.
"What she said implies you're blessed by God. Why not say 'Have a good day'?"
Free Inquiry, a magazine published by the council, is addressing the issue in its spring issue in a column by author Christopher Hitchens. There is an "essential distinction," he writes, "between freedom of religion and freedom from it."
"Innumerable activities and advocacies are forbidden or discouraged at work, including in many cases the distinctly work-related question of whether or not a union can be formed," he writes. "However, there are places called churches and synagogues and mosques, within easy reach of most workplaces, so it cannot be said that religious expression is the issue here … the place for religion is in the heart, and the place to practice it is in the home: in other words that it must be self-inflicted."
But it's common for black Christians to say "Have a blessed day" no matter where they are, says the Rev. Oliver Dwayne Walker, pastor of Phillips CME Church.
"We are aware that different groups are having negative feelings about that and may not subscribe to faith in God and feel that's an infringement on them," he says. "It seems that you can legally curse someone out, but if you say, 'God bless you,' you get into trouble."
Not everyone wants to be so blessed, says Doug Christensen, USF Logistics president and chief executive officer, who says employees should not use company property to confer unwanted sentiments.
"She put it in her business correspondence and we asked her not to," he said. "We're not trying to offend anybody. We're trying to do what's legally correct. You never know who you might offend."
Company policy now stipulates Mrs. Anderson can display religious objects in her office and talk about her faith with other employees, he says. "The only thing we've asked is she not use it in any written correspondence," such as e-mail or anything on company letterhead.
Currently, USFL and Mrs. Anderson await the EEOC's ruling on her case.
"What's so interesting about the phrase is that if someone said, 'Please let Jesus save you today,' that goes too far," says her attorney, Kevin Betts. "But this is a pretty nondenominational phrase that doesn't push anything onto anyone else. Although it's a religious practice of my client, it's a neutral religious practice."
" 'Merry Christmas' is far more religious and denominational than what my client wants to say. I've tried to show the strength of our argument by using the analogy."

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