What About Religious Expression?

What's the difference between proselytizing and religious expression? Who gets to decide how much religious expression is acceptable in the workplace? The White Guy addresses both questions in his latest blog entry.

Ask the White Guy Luke Visconti


I would never presume to limit the wearing of headscarves, crosses or modest clothing. What, though, about clothing, not otherwise prescribed by the religion, which is an expression of belief? For example, if you worked in a bank in which suits were the norm, and an employee chose to wear a T-shirt with the words “Jesus Saves” in large print on the front instead of a more traditional shirt.

Nothing in any branch of Christianity suggests that adherents should not wear shirts or should wear T-shirts, nor that good Christians must proclaim their beliefs in large letters on their clothing. Yet asking someone so attired to change clothing (especially since I am not a Christian myself) could lead to charges of suppression of religious expression.

There’s a big difference between wearing a small cross or headscarf and a T-shirt proclaiming “Jesus Saves” or “Allahu Akbar.” One is modest dress while the other I would consider to be proselytizing.

For a typical business or any public institution, proselytizing is not appropriate. Is there a strict definition for proselytizing? No.

Who gets to decide? For business, top management must establish what “crosses the line.” The CEO clearly stating values, both publicly and repetitively, facilitates this. What constitutes “proper” dress will also be much less of a problem if effective diversity training and follow-up is in place.

Just so we’re all clear, the overwhelming majority of oppressive behavior is directed from the majority culture to a minority culture. If the corporate values define good business practice as serving all people equally and developing talent equitably, then oppressive behavior isn’t compatible with good business.

This doesn’t take away anyone’s “rights” because you don’t have a “right” to be a counterproductive employee.


I’m sure there are a couple of people reading this who are tempted to send me an e-mail about Muslim women wearing headscarves as a form of proselytizing. Here’s my answer so we can all save time: Don’t be asinine.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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  • If a T-shirt is acceptable work attire than a Jesus Power t-shirt should also be. The only restrictions should be those that are also unacceptable in schools–shirts that promote drugs, violence or discrimination.If T-shirts are not acceptable in the workplace, then no t-shirt is acceptable not even one that involves religious expression. If jewelry is acceptable, however, the person could wear a cross or a big pin that says JESUS like an old lady at my former church did. If visible jewelry is not acceptable, tuck it in at work, take it out afterwards. Follow the rules but don’t allow discrimination based on them. Religious persecution is wrong whether it is against Christians or Hindus. If we don’t uphold the rights of everyone, we uphold the rights of no one. I dislike seeing Muslim women in their special clothing, I think it is a symbol of repression. But I think it is their right to wear them as long as no one is forcing them to do so. But I knew some little girls who were forced to wear clothing of another religion, which is similar to muslim garb. They did not want to wear the clothes. They did not believe in or even understand the religion. They did not want to be vegetarians as their parents’ faith required. They hated their dreadlocks that were covered by their turbans. These were 5 sisters age 7-11 at an urban public school. They had to learn to fight because other children pulled off their turbans. Two things bother me about this situation. If it is not the choice of the child she should not be forced to practice the extreme dress codes. If religious dress codes cause a child to be ostracized consideration should be given to allowing modifications while still keeping the child modest. The child should have input into the clothing. After all they are the ones who suffer because of their parents’ choices.The father of the little girls had dreads and always wore a t-shirt with a picture of Haile Selassie, the founder of their faith–normal human being clothing. He sometimes added a black power striped crocheted hat.The other thing that bothers me is that religious dress is always applied to girls and women only,regardless of the faith. The men and boys might wear a religiously related outfit or a little hat, but it never restricts their movement or makes them anonyomous.The only exception I have ever seen to this is the Taliban, who require that men wear beards, Sikhs, who wear turbans, and ultra orthodox Jews who have special hats and wear curls in front of their ears. Even the Fundamentalist Mormons, Amish, and United Pentecostals allow functional garments for men but have much stricter concepts of modesty for women. We have discussed this in church. My pastor was Church of God and when he was a child the church had strict dress and hair codes for men and women. They have grown out of some of them.

  • What does any of this have to do with diversity? We are not asked to conceal our genetic makeup at the workplace, because we are not responsible for that.
    We ARE asked to conceal our religious makeup at the workplace, because we ARE responsible for THAT, and anything that can be deemed contentious by nature will usually be deemed “counterproductive” to the corporate goals and objectives and will be dealt with accordingly.
    However, this (USA) is a free country, and when someone asks us what we believe, we have every right to answer honestly.
    In Indonesia, on the other hand, where 500 Christian churches were burned down by frightened Muslims, a different approach may be prudent.
    What America has to ask is, “How do we keep from becoming like Indonesia?”

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