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For God and company

More employees are bringing faith to work, but not without rules

When hundreds of Christian churches hold their national congress at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center Thursday, Drew Crandall plans to be there, advising attendees on how to practice their faith at work and giving out religious items for the office cubicle and computer.

Crandall is director of Northeast Christians at Work, a Connecticut nonprofit that aids in the creation of workplace ministries in New England, New York, and New Jersey, a region long considered resistant to evangelism.

''The Northeast has been slow in catching on," said Crandall. ''The soil has been harder, if you will. But cultural diversity is now very much in vogue. So, our goal is to help corporations to recognize that Christians are part of that diversity. We want to widen the net to include anyone in the workplace, from the CEO to the janitor to the cashier."

That net, once restricted to the South and Midwest, is spreading as more workers attempt to integrate their work and personal lives and as Christian consultants like Crandall encourage US workers to persuade employers that diversity programs should include religious faith, too.

Surveys conducted after President Bush's reelection suggest the growth of faith-related initiatives in the workplace is just one aspect of the increasing role of religion in politics and culture. Analysts attributed Bush's reelection victory, in part, to overwhelming support from Christian conservatives, the Bush administration's ties to the evangelical movement, and its emphasis on moral values and religious faith.

''Many of the people who supported President Bush did so because this president has not been afraid to discuss religion as a cornerstone of his presidency," said Washington lawyer Eric Siegel, who specializes in religious disputes. ''So people are far more open about their faith at work."

More than 1,300 workplace ministries were operating by 2004, up from just 50 a dozen years ago, said Os Hillman, founder of the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries in Georgia. About 900 are nonprofits that reach out to workers, he said. The rest have sprung up at companies across the country, including Intel Corp., the computer chip maker, and California-based Silicon Graphics Inc., a maker of computing, storage, and visualization systems.

''There has been a proliferation of corporate groups in the last few years," said Hillman. ''One reason is the failure of ethics in corporate America, and another factor is that people are spending more time at work than they did 10 years ago. Corporations are realizing that the employees' total life must be represented."

At Intel in Hudson, engineer David Romano, 46, of Cumberland, R.I., says he cannot separate faith from work. Romano heads a lunchtime Bible study group, but confines his discussions about God to co-workers who wish to talk about their beliefs.

''Intel prohibits outward evangelism," he said. ''We cannot go from cube to cube to bring people into the faith."

Engineer Paul Dormitzer, 39, of Acton, sits three cubicles from Romano, but the two men never talk about religion, and Dormitzer likes it that way.

''I've never felt that anyone was proselytizing in this workplace," he said.

Dormitzer says he doesn't attend Bible study meetings, but feels his peers should if they want to.

At a recent lunch-time meeting, Romano and several colleagues read scriptures, including Colossians 3:15. ''And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body, and be thankful," Romano said as members followed on laptops, Palm Pilots, and bound volumes of the Bible.

''God doesn't want religion," Romano told members in the meeting room. ''He wants a relationship."

Romano keeps his relationship with God alive by praying at home and work. A poster of the Ten Commandments that Crandall publishes for workers is in his cubicle. Members of his Bible study group stay in touch by downloading the Bible onto company computers, or keeping religious artifacts in their cubicles.

Patrick Gelsinger, Intel's senior vice president and chief technology officer, is an avowed Christian who was instrumental in getting Intel to recognize a systemwide group called the Intel Bible-based Christian Network. Gelsinger, who is based in Oregon, says the network is a reflection of Americans' increased interest in faith.

''There is a resumption of religious interest across the nation, whether Christian or some other religion, and the presidential election results were an indicator," he said.

Launched in California a decade ago, the Bible network was the first such network at the firm. Today, it is among several that promote networking, discussion, and shared interests among like-minded people. Each is chartered and each agrees to follow guidelines, such as a stipulation against proselytizing. Intel's networks now include a Muslim group; a Jewish group; a gay, lesbian, and transgender group; a women's group; and a parents' group, said Tracy Koon, director of Intel corporate affairs in Santa Clara, Calif.

Koon said the networks grew out of the company's philosophy that each person brings a set of principles as well as cultural and religious beliefs to work that are an indelible part of his character. At the same time, the company recognized that those characteristics need to be acknowledged, but not at the expense of others. So the networks meet privately and even collaborate at diversity events, but they do not compete and they cannot force their views on co- workers.

''When we sat down and looked at this, we played out every possible scenario," Koon said. ''We also looked at what could promote a hostile workplace, and then decided that those things would be verboten. So, for example, evangelizing cannot be part of a group's charter."

Until recently, most employers frowned on religious expression at work, Carmel Chiswik, a religious economist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said. But that's changing.

''People with higher incomes are paying attention to religion and expressing it at work," Chiswik said. ''The companies they work for have fitness rooms, child care, and flexible workplaces. Now, they are allowing more expression."

But as religious expression increases at work, so do disputes over the way religious speech and behavior should be governed and the degree to which employers are legally required to accommodate religious practices.

In addition, workers' attempts to share their beliefs can pose problems if their colleagues have different views.

Kate Duncan, 40, of North Reading, disliked her co-workers' attempts to convert her to Christianity. Duncan, an atheist, said colleagues placed prayer cards on her desk and routinely invited her to Bible study at lunch time or prayer sessions at their homes.

''It made me feel uncomfortable," she said. ''I don't want to convert, but I sometimes felt the pressure at work or that I was less than a good person. I also felt I had to justify my pattern of thinking."

Now, her colleagues shun her.

''I have been ostracized," said Duncan. ''If somebody is having a wedding or different events, I'm not invited. . . . You are made to feel uncomfortable if you do not believe in God."

Disputes over religion are increasing because companies are more diverse, said Siegel, the Washington lawyer. He believes such conflicts are due, in part, to the influx of immigrants whose Muslim faith requires strict adherence to prayer as well as the spread of Christian evangelism.

''The fact that people are more open about faith is creating tension," he said.

Last year, 167 religious bias cases were filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, up from 117 in 2002. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that religious bias charges jumped to 2,532 in fiscal 2003, up from 1,388 in fiscal 1992, an 82 percent increase.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers cannot discriminate because of workers' religious beliefs and must provide reasonable accommodations as long as those accommodations do not cause undue hardship.

In September, for example, a Nashville jury found that Whirlpool Corp., the appliance manufacturer, did not violate the law when it prohibited about 40 Muslim assembly line workers from praying at work. The company argued that allowing them to take time off would disrupt production and hurt earnings.

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at dlewis@globe.com. 

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