I’m a public employee and the governor pushes religion at work

A reader writes:

Unlike the bulk of your letters, I’m going to name my employer for two reasons: (1) I technically work for an elected official so it’s not a standard boss/employee relationship and (2) multiple reporters covered and recorded the behavior in question because these were public events. You can find it online everywhere.

I’m a state employee in Virginia, and I’m not appointed. Although I work at an agency, I am technically part of the executive branch, which means I work for Governor Glenn Youngkin. I am also an atheist.

I’m pretty high up in my agency, which means I work directly with Governor Youngkin’s staff a lot on public events: speeches, ribbon cuttings, announcements, meetings, etc. During his speeches, he and his wife repeatedly mention their Christian faith, and they speak as though the entire audience is Christian as well.

Here’s what bothers me. One of Governor Youngkin’s habits is to open a public event or speech with a prayer (or a minister does it), heavily reference his relationship with Jesus Christ throughout his remarks, and request us to bow our heads and say “amen.” In one instance, he said all of us at a public meeting were “created in God’s image” and I was so uncomfortable and annoyed, but I hid my frustration. I refuse to bow my head or close my eyes or clasp my hands or say “amen” on command or applaud an anecdote about the power of believing in Jesus Christ. I merely stand or sit where I am and say nothing, looking off into the distance. Several days ago, my big boss (a Youngkin appointee) noticed that I wasn’t bowing my head during the opening prayer at a public event, and he gave me a puzzled look and then an eyebrow raise. Although I’m uncomfortable, I’ve never said anything nor drawn attention to myself. I doubt anyone else in my office knows how I feel. But…

There’s another event with the governor coming up, and my big boss said he wants to talk to me beforehand. (It might not be about my lack of participation.) I’d like to be prepared if he or anyone from the administration approaches me about my lack of participation in religious offerings. (My big boss is very concerned with appearances.) What are my rights? What can they legally ask me to do? How can I politely and professionally push back? Do I have to disclose that I’m an atheist? Can they forbid me from attending these events? (If they did, that’d be a huge blow to my career.) I checked my HR policy, but I can’t find anything specific to this scenario.

The other non-Christians in my office would like this information as well.

(To be clear, I don’t think Governor Youngkin is actively trying to convert people. I think he and his staff have been around people who believe exactly like them for so long that they don’t realize that employees of other faiths and no faiths exist as well.)

Youngkin is my governor too and it’s infuriating to watch what he’s doing in our state.

I asked employment lawyer Jon Hyman of Wickens Herzer Panza, who writes the incredibly useful Ohio Employer Law Blog and is the author of The Employer Bill of Rights: A Manager’s Guide to Workplace Law, to weigh in on this. Here’s what he said:

The workplace and religion do not mix, whether the workplace is public or private. An employer cannot force its employees to conform to, follow, or practice their employer’s chosen religious practices and beliefs. Anything different violates Title VII in either a public or private workplace. Moreover, in a government workplace there are additional First Amendment concerns. A state or local government does not violate the First Amendment by starting government meetings with a prayer, as the Supreme Court held in 2014 in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Still, there is a vast difference between holding a prayer and forcing participation in it, even nominally such a bowing one’s head or otherwise appearing to be reverent. The latter is unlawful (and in this case likely unconstitutional).

What that means in your case: You cannot be required to participate in prayer. You cannot be told to bow your head or say “amen.” You must be allowed to sit quietly and not participate, as you have been doing. They also cannot forbid you from attending public events or work events if you decline to perform religious observance in the way they want.

You do not need to disclose you are an atheist. You can disclose it, if you want to! But you’re entitled to keep that private too.

I asked Jon, “If the letter-writer’s boss does confront them about why they’re not bowing their head, etc. during prayer, do you have suggested wording to push back? I know they could just bluntly say that they can’t legally be required to participate — and that may be the way to go — but assuming they’re concerned about keeping things as harmonious as possible in their working relationships and since they appear to be dealing with zealots, would you advise any particular messaging? My first thought is to say something like, ‘Oh, I don’t participate in public prayers’ … and then only if pushed, ‘Legally, we can’t require that type of participation from employees.’” Jon replied:

If asked, it certainly puts the employee in a difficult spot. I like the idea of a softer approach first, something like, “My religion and spirituality is very personal to me, and I’d prefer to keep it out of the workplace.” If pushed, the employee could always fall back to legal argument, but at that point I feel like the relationship might be damaged to the point of irreparability.

I love the “my religion and spirituality is very personal to me, and I’d prefer to keep it out of the workplace” language if you’re comfortable saying it and would have that ready to go if you need it.

Jon also offered this advice to employers:

If you’re thinking of holding a prayer meeting, conducting spiritual discussions or rituals, or doing anything else remotely related to religion at your company, don’t. Religion has no place at work. Your employees have the unfettered right to practice the religion of their choice or not to practice any religion at all, and none of it is any of anyone else’s business.

{ 311 comments… read them below }

  1. Unfortunately*

    With the supreme court the way it is at the moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if people like Youngkin are engaging in this sort of behavior because they know people either won’t escalate it or because if they do it may result in new precedent around religion in the government.

    1. cardigarden*

      That’s what I’m thinking. I also can’t decide (based on how bland his campaign was– at least, the campaign ads that papered my same-market tv) if he actually believes it or he knows it’s what the base likes. Either way, though, they seem to be pushing the bounds of the establishment clause.

      1. ChemistryChick*

        Youngkin strikes me as a performance artist who could take or leave the religious aspect depending on what would get him more votes. I honestly don’t know if he has any beliefs/convictions that are truly his own.

        1. Baron*

          Thanks for this, ChemistryChick – that’s how I feel, too. Honestly, 99% of politicians’ performativity about their faith strikes me this way—but Youngkin’s strikes me as particularly cynical.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            For me it comes down to how much attention they draw to themselves while practicing their faith- for example Biden, Obama, Clinton, both Bush presidents* have all seemed to just quietly go to church just about every Sunday – many at churches they had a long history with. That makes me think their faith is probably pretty sincere. They also didn’t hide or seem to push that faith on others.

            I don’t live in Virginia or FL, but those governors, but from what I see from the outside of those two it seems to be far more performance oriented- what can I get out of acting my faith blatantly out loud. It just feels far more cynical.

            *these are the ones that I remember clearly with their actions and the reporting that was done.

            1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

              Then there’s the other guy who modestly claimed that Jesus was more famous than him but whose behaviour is far from Christian and who has never been seen at church yet somehow the Christian right wing just looooves him

          2. Vio*

            Not just their faith even. Most of them just say what they think the voters want to hear, even if it’s completely different to what they believe. They make promises to do things they have no intention of doing, sometimes wouldn’t even have the power to deliver if they did want to. Half of them can’t even make a decent job of faking any passion unless they’re slagging off their opponents.

        2. yala*

          Honestly, I think this of most people like that. It’s not about an actual sincere belief. It’s a flex that also serves to make an ingroup/outgroup.

          1. Mark the Herald*

            This. I actually am a Christian, or try to be, and I would never, ever do this kind of nasty, bullying, bang-it-out-to-the-cheap-seats, fake, narcissistic, performative piety. The people who use their religion as a cudgel upset me on a very deep level, because they offend both my patriotism and my faith.

            1. H3llifIknow*

              I believe that being Christian is like being intelligent or polite, it should be self-evident. If you have to tell people you are any of those, you aren’t.

            2. BluRae*

              Isn’t there a bible verse about not praying in public just to be seen praying?

              “Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

        3. ferrina*

          Yep. Youngkin has a fair amount of policies that are not going to be able to stand long-term due to the crafting. They’re designed to make a marketing statement, not set policy. He’s likely trying to set himself up for a presidential run using the same methods as deSantis.

        4. Cat's Paw for Cats*

          Well said. I find this to be true for a lot of these people. I suspect that many of them find religious people useful but actually hold them in contempt.

      2. Hamburke*

        I moved from Fairfax to Richmond 10 years ago and was shocked at how much religion is openly everywhere down here, including in government functions. there’s always a convocation (prayer), people everywhere invite you to fellowship and church functions, and religion is very much a part of people’s everyday public lives. it was jarring! and I grew up in Catholic school!

        I believe that youngkin really is that steeped in religion, that it’s not an act, but I also believe that that sort of religiousness does not belong in government. my husband thinks he virtue signals a bit too much. his bland adverts were designed to not shock the Nova constituents the way I was shocked moving here.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Though I 100% think that Youngkin is a performance artist, I think that what he’s doing is generally pretty normal for Virginia politicians outside of big, urban areas.

      Virginia is called a purple state, but it’s really red with a lot of blue blotches in it. Outside of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, parts of Richmond, and the college towns – and even all of these constituencies have believers or at least people who are inured to the prevalence of religion in public life, what Youngkin’s laying down plays really well. There are wide swaths of the Commonwealth that are rural, religious, and Republican, and what Youngkin is doing is standard and even expected outside of the larger, more urban areas of Virginia. When my nephew graduated from public HS in rural Virginia a few years ago, every single graduation speaker mentioned god, Jesus, and something overtly Christian.

      I live in Northern Virginia, and there is a much larger chance of this sort of pandering not playing well to the whole crowd here; where my in-laws are, prayers and references to Jesus are expected and not mentioning it would raise questions and concerns. I don’t know where LW is located, but nothing they’re written in their letter strikes me as unusual for Virginia politics, having lived here for the last 30 years or so.

      1. ChemistryChick*

        I agree, it is normal for VA politics (born and raised here, currently in SWVA) but Youngkin’s brand of it just strikes me as over the top. I agree with ferrina that he’s using it to set himself up for a Presidential run.

      2. Teapot Unionist*

        Living in one of the college towns, and working with school boards around central Virginia, Christianity is definitely the default and assumed shared value. But, I visibly do not stand for the pledge or bow my head for prayer, and it is generally accepted in even the most conservative places. Sometimes, people are genuinely confused when I tell them their public prayer was not universally welcomed by all their employees or students.

    3. Michelle Smith*

      The precedent for those of us who aren’t Christian is already so bad. It’s infuriating that what he’s currently doing is legal. It is absolutely not upholding the separation of church and state regardless of what any of those judges have said.

      1. Tinkerbell*

        Even for those of us who are, it’s infuriating because the type of Christian who does this also tends to be the type who is intolerant of other flavors of Christianity as well. Like, if you don’t notice or don’t care that you’re bothering the people around you who don’t share your beliefs, you’re also not going to notice or care when your beliefs trample on the human rights of groups you don’t personally approve of. I’d consider myself a Christian but I’m also married to a trans woman and have a genderqueer kid – a significant percentage of “Christians” would kick me out for that alone.

        1. Chirpy*

          This! There’s some local politicians who want to outlaw panhandling, for example, but they won’t pass the permits for a very needed homeless shelter, they stopped a local organization from handing out free food, and that’s not even getting into issues like they won’t raise the minimum wage or do anything about affordable housing shortages. Or make sure women get reproductive rights. Perhaps if they opened the Bibles they like to thump, they’d read the bits about “feed the hungry, house the homeless, welcome the foreigners, love the unloved, justice for the downtrodden”…or at least stop getting in the way of people whose faith does lead them to help others.

    4. Fishsticks*

      These people are banking on using Christianity as the smokescreen that blinds their voters into supporting full fascism, so… yeah, it’s the latter. They know right now is their best chance to stomp on as many people as possible without consequences.

    5. L'étrangère*

      Alas yes, we can assume that if this got back to the Supreme Court as it is today we’d all lose our hard-won right to not be Christians

  2. cardigarden*

    LW, if as an atheist, you’re not comfortable saying “my religion/spirituality is very personal” because that enables the other party to presume you are religious, you could say “this is something that is deeply personal to me that I do not bring to the workplace”. And then follow up with the legality/constitutionality if pressed.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Or even just dropping the “my” – “Religion is a very personal and private thing for me,” meaning the whole topic of religion and not necessarily “yours.”

      1. SpaceySteph*

        or just add a silent “lack of” as in “my [lack of] spirituality is very personal to me”

    2. Caramel & Cheddar*

      That was the downside with that language for me as well, that it opens up the idea that you *are* religious in some way. Part of me wishes LW could just say “Oh, I”m not Christian!” in a cheery tone that suggests *of course* they wouldn’t ask non-Christians (religious and not religious alike) to participate in Christian prayer stuff, etc. but I do wonder if that would also bring a whole other set of things for LW to navigate that aren’t worth saying that explicitly.

      1. doreen*

        It would be great if the LW could just say “Oh, I’m not Christian!” and that would be the end of it – but it very possibly wouldn’t. I worked for a state agency , in a different state where any religious activity including prayers was strictly unofficial – and someone still said a blessing “In Jesus’ name” over the food at a retirement dinner for a Jewish colleague at a kosher restaurant. He couldn’t imagine why that might be offensive – there are probably a million ways for a Christian to “bless the food” without involving Jesus but there is a certain type of Christian that is clueless.

        1. Sam I Am*

          Exactly. LW says there are other non-Christians in the office who are concerned about this issue, too, which probably includes people of other faiths. American Christian hegemony is a helluva drug.

        2. nobadcats*

          I worked for a small private investment company that was run by people of the LDS faith. EVERY meeting was begun with a prayer. I wasn’t necessarily silent about my own non-belief, just said I didn’t practice. One Christmas, one of the managers was buying presents for our department at a local candy shop, she said, “Oh, I know nobadcats isn’t religious, but she likes stars.” Readers, it was a blue and silver six-pointed star-shaped box of chocolate gelt*. I about laughed my ass off. The chocolate was really good though.

          Late in the game, they had an outside consultant come in, and they remarked that everyone non-LDS employee had the same question, “Is it okay/necessary/legal to require us to participate in prayer?” Let’s just say, no lessons were learned from that and the consultants were fired.

          I still have three copies of the Book of Mormon that were gifted to us every year.

          1. Ace in the Hole*

            That’s awful but hilarious. I’m imagining this same coworker giving someone a menorah because they like candles.

        3. Michelle Smith*

          The most obvious one being saying the prayer quietly to yourself at your table before you start eating. Everyone knows what you’re doing, but you’re not inconveniencing or offending other people.

          And to be frank, not all Christians observe the religion the same way. So some of them are probably put off by this stuff too! I know when I was observant, my little sect/group had a specific way of praying that was different from the way others prayed. So the group prayers didn’t work for me even when I was supposedly part of the *in* group. This stuff just drives me mad. It’s perfectly fine to practice your religion, but forcing it on other people AT WORK is a special kind of egregious to me.

        4. Observer*

          and someone still said a blessing “In Jesus’ name” over the food at a retirement dinner for a Jewish colleague at a kosher restaurant. He couldn’t imagine why that might be offensive

          I should be shocked, but I’m not. I was heavily involved in Y2K remediation, and that taught me a LOT about how people see the world. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the hysteria was not about the technology, even when it was couched that way. Once I started understanding that, I began to understand why I was seeing such weird stuff. What made it harder to deal with is that it wasn’t always explicit, and sometimes the people spouting stuff didn’t even realize where the foundational fears were coming from.

          I remember wondering why people were being so hysterical about this stuff. Then I read a really good article about how people are reacting to “THE millennium” and contrasted it to the last time this happened (ie 1000ce). It was an interesting read and it totally tracked with a lot of the language I was seeing – and it also helped to explain why some people who SHOULD have had more urgency didn’t quite get it – they were mostly also (unconsciously, I think) framing it in the religious framework, which didn’t apply to them. But it certainly did apply to MANY system on a purely technical basis.

          In short, there were religious *Christain* underpinnings to the whole hysteria, which caused a lot of angst, but it also caused some people to understate the situation, which lead to its own set of bad results.

      2. fueled by coffee*

        Back when I worked at a public school (aka, technically the government) my supervisor liked to helpfully remind me that she’d learned of this new thing called Messianic Judaism so I could be Jewish AND still be saved.

        Also, this isn’t about Christianity – even if LW were Christian, they still shouldn’t be required to participate in prayers in the manner their employer wants them to, and it’s not their employer’s business whether or not LW bows their head or says “amen.”

          1. mlem*

            It claims to be, but it’s aimed almost as much as the “wrong” Christians as it is at the non-Christians.

            1. Momma Bear*

              Agreed. This kind of thing is very specifically branded. It’s not about true expression of faith, but the subset of those practices that align with the political theater du jour.

          2. fueled by coffee*

            I mean, yes, in the sense that non-Christians generally are not forcing everyone else to put up with their blatant conflation of church and state. But for LW, the issue is that employees shouldn’t be required to participate in religious practice in the workplace in general, regardless of the specific religions (or lack thereof) of either the employer or employee.

        1. Deejay*

          A Christian who doesn’t want to participate in public prayer could refer those who try to push it to Matthew 6, verses 5 and 6.

          1. Inchik*

            And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

        2. Greg*

          Oh my God. As a Jew, I mostly have a tolerant view toward Evangelical Christians — I’m glad your religion brings meaning to your life, and as long as you don’t try to convert me we’ll get along fine — but I absolutely HATE Messianic Jews. If my boss ever said something like that to me, I’d have to fight the urge to throat-punch them.

      3. Student*

        As an atheist, I sincerely disagree and I hope you will hear me out.

        Atheism is a religion, especially for the purposes of the OP in seeking legal protection. When you talk about atheism and confidently state it’s not a religion or religious, you make a critical tactical mistake, even if you yourself are an atheist and sincerely do not want it to be called a religion.

        Even if you are an atheist, and you object to being considered any part of a religion, the protections provided because it is considered a religion for legal purposes are critical to our continued participation in society. Without using the legal protections and privileges afforded to religions, we are suddenly subject to open, widespread discrimination. At minimum, please consider that the benefits outweigh the cost of using a word you may (legitimately) find distasteful.

        Speaking of my own experience, though. My atheism took a lot of faith on my part, especially when I was surrounded by believers from Christianity and other faiths, especially when I was younger. I find it easier now, but it’s still a faith that I’m on a morally good path. It shapes my values and priorities, like any other religion. I can’t prove it’s the right path, or the best path. It’s the path I believe to be best for me, though. I wanted to share this so that you know that some atheists embrace considering it as a type of religion, so you realize there are different takes.

        1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          As an atheist, I can say in all sincerity that atheism is not a religion, it’s an absence of religion. It’s literally what the word means: the non-belief in a god. “A” for “non”, “the” for “god”, “ism” for “belief”.
          Reading on, I suppose you mean that *for the purposes of the law* atheists are entitled to the same protection as Jews, Muslims, Hindus etc. And I would say that it should go without saying that everybody should have the same rights and treatment without taking their take on religion into account.
          But rather than inferring from this that atheism is a religion, we might infer that lawyers have had trouble coming up with language that’s inclusive of atheists when crafting laws that are supposed to be non-discriminatory.

    3. lilsheba*

      I’m a huge fan of saying “I am an atheist and will not be participating.” I refuse to sugar coat or hide it. This display of religion is wrong on so many levels. NO NO NO!!!! do NOT push your religion on people!!!!!!!!!!

      1. wilma flintstone*

        I have used “Oh, gosh, I’m an atheist!” said in a super cheerful way. As in “aren’t you a little silly for presuming otherwise!” as subtext. Then pat their hand (metaphorically) and change the subject. But I’m in favor of normalizing people being Public Atheists, and that might not be the row LW want to hoe.

        1. No Longer Looking*

          I’m in favor of taking it further. “OH, I’m trying to be fair and impartial so I’m trying out Satanism for now, thanks.”

        2. hcethatsme*

          Hah, that reminds me of the time I cheerfully said to a long-time customer/acquaintance who was dissing atheists, “Actually, I’m one of them!” She literally gasped and said she had never met one before. (As if!) This was a young person I thought was on the liberal/hippy side, but in a small rural town. Granted it was about 15 years ago now.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            I really really hope you said “that you know of” very darkly, make her gasp a little bit more.

      2. Some words*

        In work settings, often I’ll say “I’m not a believer”. The few moments it takes them to translate “not a believer” to “atheist” is usually enough to short circuit any knee-jerk reaction.

        It’s possible I may have described myself a godless heathen on one or more occasions.

        1. Fiorinda*

          I used to say ‘No thank you, I’m a nullifidian and very happy that way’ when dealing with pushy door-to-door proselytisers. They didn’t stop to translate the Latin, just started trying to work out which other denomination of Christianity that was, and that gave me time to shut the door on them. :)

    4. Totally Minnie*

      I see this as being kind of analogous to saying “no, I can’t work this weekend, I already have plans,” when your plan is to spend the entire weekend at home in your pajamas. It may not be what other people would classify as a plan, but it’s your plan and that’s good enough.

      LW’s religious belief is that they do not believe in religion. That religious belief is very personal and private and they do not want to incorporate it into their work activities.

    5. whistle*

      This language bothers me because 1) I don’t have a religion, 2) I don’t consider myself spiritual, and 3) I don’t consider it personal!

      If I did not want outright say that I was nonreligious, I would say “I’m not comfortable with public expressions of religion, and I prefer not to participate in them.”

      1. Cait*

        Would “I’m not comfortable with religious expression, especially at work,” be better? “Public expressions of religion” would include someone praying in church (for example), wouldn’t it? I know I’m just being nitpicky though.

          1. Nina*

            In my country religious venues that ever have any intention of performing weddings must be classed as, and behave like, public buildings.

      2. Pierrot*

        And I think if LW wanted to drop the first part, they could just say “I am not comfortable participating in public/workplace expressions of religion.”
        They’re also not comfortable participating in private expressions of religion, but since that’s private they don’t really need to disclose that.
        If there is pushback from the boss, “I do not appreciate being pressured into participating in prayer in the workplace.” Then documenting.

    6. TechWorker*

      Agree this is better. I would be hugely uncomfortable saying ‘my religion and spirituality are very important to me’.

      1. DisgruntledPelican*

        I have said “This is not how I practice, so it would be inappropriate for me to participate.”

  3. ecnaseener*

    I think I would go with a combination of Alison’s and Jon’s approaches – first response “public prayer isn’t my thing,” second response Jon’s script. Third response “we can’t legally require” if you’re up to it.

    1. NeedsMoreCookies*

      I like this approach because they might think it’s a “Matthew 6:6” biblical objection to public prayer, so it doesn’t reveal that you’re not Christian in the first place. I’d be very hesitant to reveal atheism or any non-Christian religion to that sort of aggressively Christian leadership, unless I was willing to make headlines to fight for my job back.

      1. Delta Delta*

        I would bet you at least one nickel these folks aren’t thinking of Matthew 6:6. The “everyone has to pray” population in neoconservative government has little overlap, if any, with the population that’s actually read the Bible.

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        As a practicing Christian, I would happily go explicitly to Matt. 6:6, but this obviously isn’t for everyone.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I also wouldn’t have a problem with it – but then I’m also a practicing Christian and former church employee to boot.

          Not everyone is willing to walk that road – and that’s fine too.

        2. Properlike*

          I’m not a practicing Christian, and I’d go explicitly “Matthew 6:6.” Because it’s a reminder for them, not for me!

          1. ecnaseener*

            Interesting, I didn’t know about that verse! I do think if you’re going to invoke it, you need to own it as a verse *you* choose to follow and not as a pointed reminder / critique of people who don’t follow it. You don’t want your clear-cut “don’t force religion on me at work” case to be muddied by “but I’ll criticize your religious practices.”

      3. I have RBF*

        I’m an ex-Christian. I would go to Matthew 6:5-6 because it does not explicitly say I’m Christian, but puts my dislike of public prayer into a Christian context for them to understand. Is that absolutely correct? Well, no. But people who want to push their prayers into the public sphere often have very little other context to appeal to. They will usually tolerate people who strictly adhere to the words of Jesus.

    2. Kaitydid*

      I like this idea. I used something similar when my mom was saying odd things about making her students say the pledge of allegiance. We’re both state employees so I said something about how as a state employee I’m glad my boss can’t compel speech from me.

  4. MI Dawn*

    So happy to see this! I’m an atheist/agnostic and most of my coworkers are at least religious, if not deeply so. We have had a few discussions about religion (more when we were in the office and a significant Christian holiday in the middle of the week rolled around) and most of my coworkers know me from when I did (sorta) believe. But my comments have not had any negative impact on my work relationships. Which I know I’m lucky about.

    My employer works very hard at DEI – they still have work to do, but they are generally open and honest about their faults and work in progress.

    However – I do keep quiet about my personal relationships as they are *not* traditional nor are they even marginally accepted in many places, even in those places where LGBT+ are accepted. The most anyone knows is that I do have a partner whom I see on a regular basis. (and yes, the relationship involves only consenting adults).

  5. Tricia*

    I’ll be frank, as an atheist myself I don’t like ““my religion/spirituality is very personal”.

    I’d be more comfortable with the message of “Religion is not part of the workplace, and I appreciate you respecting my beliefs.”

    1. Suzy Q*

      Another option would be, “I have different beliefs.”
      This is vague yet would cover the topic of religion or lack thereof.

    2. Pippa K*

      I generally agree with you here (and am Christian), but unfortunately there are plenty of people who will take “religion is not part of the workplace” as a salvo in their much-loved imaginary war on Christianity and respond by escalating, along either the aggressive “this is a Christian country” line or the “I have a right to express my religious faith however I want” line. That they are legally wrong and socially obnoxious does not stop them. If anyone wants to be up for that fight, I salute them, but sometimes we’re all just so, so tired.

      This makes me reflect that OP (and the rest of us who would like this Youngkin-style bs to stop) are in the difficult position of having to calibrate how confrontational we want to be in any given situation – and frustratingly, it’s the objection that’s generally read as confrontational, not the original “forcing religion into a public space.” And I like your suggestion of “I appreciate your respecting my beliefs” but I have also known a fair number of people who would simply not agree to behave as though they *do* respect others’ beliefs.

    3. A Becky*

      This is what I’d go for – “I have a strong, personal belief that we should keep religion out of all workplaces, especially government ones.”

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        This is the best. This says nothing about your religious beliefs and reiterates the legal position without strictly referring to it.

  6. Anon For This #554*

    If others are bowing their heads and praying, they shouldn’t be splitting their attention to focus on what you’re doing.

    Used to work for the military, and seemed like nearly every change of command, promotion, retirement, etc, started with a prayer. Very, very uncomfortable for the rest of us. I never bowed my head or folded my hands, and no one ever called me out on it, even when I got to be one of the seniors, and settled for “annoyed but respectful silence.”

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, this is not anything you can use, but how did the big boss see the LW if everyone was supposed to have their heads bowed??? Grrr.

    2. RagingADHD*

      Yeah, I’m unclear on how the boss would see this or exchange eye contact/expressions with the LW unless the boss was also looking around instead of bowing their head.

      I think it’s perfectly valid to raise that point, if the boss tried to make an issue of it:

      “Well, I am not sure how the way I hold my head could be disruptive or disrespectful, since anyone who is praying with their head bowed wouldn’t be able to see me.”

      1. pope suburban*

        That was my first thought as well. How does anyone know, unless they’re not being mandatorily pious themselves?

      2. Ally McBeal*

        Reminds me of the joke I heard a lot at the Baptist church/school I attended:
        Q: What’s the difference between Methodists and Baptists?
        A: Methodists will wave to you in the liquor store.

    3. Lenora Rose*

      You’d be surprised how much you can notice of someone moving unexpectedly – or unexpectedly Not moving – from peripheral vision alone. The bit where they noticed enough to confirm they were seeing what they thought they saw, and the place where they *care* whether someone made the correct move, that is where the issue is. Because nobody should care, or judge another, for any peaceful non-disruptive reaction.

      1. Anon For This #554*

        I once thought I was about to be challenged on it and casually mentioned that I hoped I was a good example for other non-Christians, since as a federal organization we had to be supportive of inclusion…it headed a possible rant off. So it can be used!

    4. MigraineMonth*

      When I was in high school, the state legislature added a requirement that every classroom had to have an American flag and every school day had to start with the students reciting the pledge of allegiance.

      Some students refused to enter the classroom until after the pledge was recited for religious reasons, and the school board ruled that they couldn’t be marked tardy for doing so. In no time at all, the recitation of the pledge went from something most of the students were doing to a signal that we should hurry and get to class by the time it ended. Within the year, the pledge requirement was quietly ignored.

      At least the school bought a ton of new American flags, which is definitely the best possible use of educational funding.

      1. schmootc*

        I caused a big ruckus in junior high by refusing to say the pledge. (We were the only class that had to do it and I thought that was stupid.) The teacher was not smart enough to read the tea leaves and the principal came down and read him the riot act in the hallway. It was almost the end of the school year, so for the last week or so, I spent that hour in the library.

      2. NoIWontFixYourComputer*

        When was this? Because, since 1943, it has been ruled unconstitutional for children to be forced to say the pledge.

        West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

        1. Spero*

          There are a lot of states (I’m in one) that require the pledge to be played/recited at school daily and it’s legal as long as the law also specifies students cannot be penalized for non-participation. They are forced to hear it, they aren’t forced to participate. There’s currently a lawsuit in SC regarding this – a teacher pinned a student against a wall and yelled at her for not saying it.

        2. Marley's Ghost*

          …and in MigraineMonth’s anecdote, the school board is clearly aware of that ruling, hence no students being forced to say the pledge. (It seems possible that teachers were forced.)

          1. MigraineMonth*

            No teachers had to say it either. Someone at the office read it over the intercom while the students scrambled to get to class.

        3. MigraineMonth*

          The state legislature also required a state history course. For us, that included a landmark freedom of religion case where someone was allowed to use a mangled license plate where they chopped off the state motto.

          So yes, we knew from the beginning that we couldn’t be forced to say the pledge. There was some back-and-forth on whether we had to stand silently, or sit silently, but in the end the objectors were allowed to stay in the hallway. That rapidly went from “the objectors stood in the hallway” to “no one showed up at class in time for the pledge”.

  7. Cait*

    As an atheist myself, I cringed a little bit when I read “my religion and spirituality is very personal to me” just because it suggests that, while you want to keep your beliefs private, you still consider yourself religious. I would rather say something like, “My personal beliefs are very important to me and I’d prefer to keep them out of the workplace” since it still gets the same point across but doesn’t “sugarcoat” the message by suggesting that, even though you aren’t praising Jesus and bowing your head, you still put stock in what they’re pushing.

    1. old curmudgeon*

      I really like the phrase “personal beliefs” as an alternative to “religion and spirituality.” I think your phrasing here does a nice job of politely declining to participate in a non-adversarial way, which I can see is that the OP is hoping for.

      OP, state agency worker here (albeit in a different state), and I stand in solidarity with you. I am also an atheist, though am fortunate to be far enough down on the pecking order that I am not present for gubernatorial prayer sessions. Even at my level, though, there are situations and occasions where the tacit messaging is “we’re all Christians together here,” and that is deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

      And the obligatory PSA to all – if this troubles you, please, please, please, people, VOTE. Vote in every election, even for dog-catcher. Vote as if your liberty and your life depend on it, because they do.

      1. Nobby Nobbs*

        I read that as “your library and your life depend on it,” which is also true. Very, terrifyingly true.

        1. AccountingIsFun*

          Jamestown township in Michigan …. no more library because of this. It’s awful.

      2. Green Tea*

        Yes, as a Virginian, I’m begging people. Vote. So many people don’t because the Democrat candidate isn’t exciting, or isn’t perfect. Fair enough, and I encourage people to vote in the primary as well. But once we have a candidate, people need to vote; the alternative is we give monsters like Youngkin the power to cause real harm to real people.

        1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

          I would also say to vote in the primary for the person you personally would want as governor, not the person who you think is most electable. I’m convinced that’s why McAuliffe won the primary and now when we could have the first Black woman governor, we have Youngkin instead, because Dems thought McA. was “electable. “

          1. Green Tea*

            I completely agree with this. I voted for Jennifer Carrol Foy in the primary and was not at all thrilled when McAuliffe won. But, I still voted in the general because McAuliffe is lightyears better than Youngkin.

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          McAuliffe lost an important contingent of suburban swing voters with his parents not being involved in what’s taught comment and the upper-middle class Type As’ fear that equity will kill advanced/honors classes and selective-admission schools/programs Their kids need to get into the Ivies.

          He was a terrible choice, and we only voted for him because the alternative was substantially worse.

    2. goducks*

      As an atheist, I understand where you’re coming from. However, I think the use of the word “religion” is important here because religion is a protected class, and general beliefs are not.

      Also, to be a tad pedantic, I wouldn’t like your language as an atheist, either, because I don’t have “beliefs” around religion, by definition I have a lack of belief.

      1. Cait*

        But if we’re getting really nitpicky… isn’t the lack of belief still a belief? I wouldn’t consider atheism to be a religion because it’s the the opposite (the lack of religion), but it would still (ironically, but still importantly) be protected under the constitution as a religious belief. Honestly, I would personally have no problem saying, “I’m an atheist so I don’t pray.” However, the OP wants to keep things as smooth (and therefore as vague) as possible so to say “My lack of belief is important to me,” doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.

        1. goducks*

          No, the lack of a belief in something that cannot be seen/proven is not a belief in itself. If I lack a belief that bigfoot exists, that isn’t a belief, its the absence of belief, which is the default human default.
          As an atheist, I simply do not believe in the existence of any deity.

          1. NoIWontFixYourComputer*

            Yep. It’s the difference between:

            “I do not believe that Bigfoot exists”
            “I believe that Bigfoot does not exist”.

            It may be finely parsing the semantics, but it’s there.

        2. Temperance*

          It’s not really a lack of belief for many atheists; lots of us honestly just believe that there is no God.

          1. UKDancer*

            I think sometimes it’s cultural how you view atheism.

            I mean I grew up in an easygoing Anglican / Methodist type background but never really developed any beliefs. Church was just a thing I did and went through rather than something I believed in. Once I was old enough to have an opinion I stopped going. I was quite surprised that the other people there actually believed in the bible. I thought it was just stories like the Greek and Roman myths. So I never had a belief and still don’t believe. I quite like the carols and music though and wouldn’t mind going to service if I was visiting someone like my late godmother who was a local preacher as long as nobody tried to convert me.

            I’ve some friends who grew up in a lot more aggressively, fervently religious settings and they have an active disbelief (in that they positively rejected religion). Often this was an issue with their families and they’re opposed to religion in general and they have strong views on the issue.

            So I think atheism can either be a lack of belief or an active disbelief depending on how you feel personally.

            1. allathian*

              Yes, this. I usually say that I’m a secular humanist rather than an atheist because the idea of active disbelief puts me off. But if a simple lack of belief is sufficient, I might as well call myself an atheist and be done with it. Thanks for the food for thought!

              I grew up in a traditionally Lutheran environment, but neither of my parents are active believers. I was 5 years old when I asked my devout and recently widowed grandmother what the difference was between believing in Santa Claus and believing in Jesus. She was deeply offended and I don’t blame her at all now, given her recent loss at the time, but I still haven’t received a satisfactory answer to that question and I don’t expect to do so at any point in the future. (My belief in Santa had been shattered the previous Christmas when my uncle dressed up in one of those horrible late 70s plastic masks but forgot to disguise his voice. I started screaming the house down because I couldn’t understand what had happened to him, and wouldn’t stop until he took the mask off to show that he was fine.)

        3. Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk*

          Or, as Geddy Lee put it in such an annoying tone and voice, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!”

      2. hugseverycat*

        This has been brought up a couple times in this thread, the idea that in order for atheists to have freedom from being compelled to participate in religion, they have to say that atheism is itself a religion.

        What is the basis of this belief? As in, court cases? My understanding was that the establishment clause of the first amendment meant that the government can’t force you to participate in any religion whatsoever:

        “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

        Atheism being protected has also been established in court cases, such as Torcaso v Watkins (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torcaso_v._Watkins)

        I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me like we atheists have rights regardless of whether we call atheism a religion.

    3. BurnOutCandidate*

      Also an atheist. I’ve left it at, “I don’t pray in public,” in the past.

      When pressed, I have followed with something like, “Jesus commands against praying in public in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew chapter 6.”

      1. Casper Lives*

        As a non-Christian in the south, I’ve said similar. There’s some people who are looking for the chance to proselytize. I don’t want to get into it. It’s easier to quote Matthew. If they take it as a rebuke because I’m a stricter Christian than them, well, so be it for my mental health.

  8. I edit everything*

    People like Youngkin just scream “Pharisee in the Temple” to me. For those who don’t know the story, Jesus tells the following parable: Two men go to the Temple to pray. One, a Pharisee (a strictly observant Jewish sect in the early first century CE) stands proudly and boasts of all the things he’s done right, how much he gives and how often he prays. The other is a tax collector (a generally reviled person) who presents himself humbly, from a distance, and quietly, asking for mercy. The tax collector, Jesus says, is the one who leaves justified before God.

    The LW is the one in the right here, and Youngkin is an ass.

    1. curly sue*

      Can we not do this? The New Testament stories which vilify the Pharisees (ancestors of modern Rabbinic Judaism) are a core part of Church-led antisemitism. They also have very little place in a column responding to an atheist asking for advice.

      1. Former Hominid*

        When you consider that the public Christian prayer that the Governor and his lackeys are engaging in also is highly discriminatory against Jews and other non-christians as well as atheists, the above take is doubly bad.

      2. I edit everything*

        I apologize. I knew better. My point was that showy people like Youngkin get my back up, not to vilify any particular modern faith tradition except showy Political Evangelicals.

        I would fully support church-led anti-showy-Political Evangelicalism, if it were a thing.

      3. cardigarden*

        Apologies for my careless response above. You are correct and I responded too quickly to the original comment while thinking about my own opinions about public vs private religion and didn’t pause to think about how Christianity at large uses those passages in a different way from the community that raised me. Thank you for calling it out.

      4. Darsynia*

        Thank you. It took a lot of hard thinking and reading to rid myself of this ingrained comparison, having been raised evangelical, but it is in no way a neutral thing to say, and I appreciate your pushing back on it.

      5. learnedthehardway*

        Interesting – I did not know this. Since both the Pharisees and presumably the tax collector in the story were Jewish, I would have assumed the story would be interpreted in a pretty y neutral wrt flavour of religion, and that the focus would be all about HOW to worship God properly. However, there’s no accounting for hatred and evil people twisting things, is there?

  9. DomaneSL5*

    I am really glad that Alison got the advice of a lawyer on this. I also think if you are worried about some kind of retaliation from not praying or whatever from this big boss, it might be wise to start researching a lawyer. Republicans really want this fight with the courts stacked for them, but you need to protect yourself. Your values are really second here to your job security. As a fellow atheist, I would be pretty scared too my job is on the line.

    1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

      Talking to a lawyer now should be #1 on your list.

      #2 is getting it in writing. Perhaps your big boss is smart enough not to do that, but given their ham-handed expectations, maybe not. So if the boss pressures you in a private meeting, immediately follow it up with an email back to the boss summarizing what they said. Even if they then deny it, it’s on the record in a contemporaneous fashion what you heard at the meeting. That can be powerful.

      1. old curmudgeon*

        Absolutely. And BCC your private email address and your attorney’s email address when you do this.

      2. Cheshire Cat*

        And bcc your personal email so you have a record of it, in case your state account “loses” it somehow. Or print it out and take it home.

  10. Separation of church and state is important*

    Lol, for what it’s worth I am religious (Christian) and I don’t bow my head or close my eyes during this type of stuff either. of course I also think that mixing religion and politics/government is BS.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Yeah this is really it. I’m very not Christian, but if I was at someone’s house and they said grace for dinner, I would bow my head and participate respectfully. This is just such an inappropriate venue.

      1. lilsheba*

        Nope. I will not participate in that, it’s not something I do. I will sit there with my eyes open, looking blankly into space until they are done with it.

        1. zolk*

          Same, my family are religious and I am not. When extended relatives bow their heads and say grace etc I just sit there with my eyes open in silence. Two things are both true: it would be disrespectful of me to pretend to participate in this kind of activity when I think it’s nonsense, and it would be disrespectful of them to expect me to participate against my beliefs.

          1. Texan In Exile*

            We had people over for supper. They are devout Catholics. I was raised Catholic but no longer practice; my husband is a vocal atheist.

            They prayed before supper – and I was pissed. They didn’t even ask. They just presumed. It’s been a decade and I am still angry about it.

        2. Art*

          “I will sit there with my eyes open, looking blankly into space until they are done with it.”

          Sure, if you want to look like the unhinged sociopath that crashed a dinner party and I say this as fellow atheist

          1. Aces low*

            It’s worked for me for over 35 years. You may be incapable of not looking sociopathic but some of us do just fine.

            1. Riot Grrrl*

              I think it’s the “looking blankly into space” part that would seem odd. I think most people who keep their eyes open in such a circumstance do not in fact stare “blankly into space”, but rather focus somewhat inwardly, or just look unobtrusively at the meal before them like a normal person.

              1. Jenn*

                Shocked that Aces is older than me because they sound like an edgy teenage atheist being dramatic for the sake of it instead of sucking it up and staring at their hands for 45 seconds while grandma prays

                1. Electric sheep*

                  Jenn, it’s not disrespectful to quietly not participate in a prayer. If everyone else is staring at their hands or has their eyes closed they can just focus on that instead. Obliging people who aren’t Christian to pretend to be Christian for other people is not the way.

              2. Don't Call Me Shirley*

                Anyone looking at your eyes is another heathen, or being a weird kind of enforcer.

          2. Properlike*

            Wow. This is completely uncalled for and judgmental, Art. I say this as a fellow atheist. Please stop policing others for imagined transgressions.

    2. 2 Cents*

      Also christian, actively practicing and somewhat devout, and I would be very uncomfortable with this kind of display at work(!).

      I like the wording of “Personal beliefs are important and private” — that way you don’t have to claim you ascribe to any sort of organized religion.

      1. 2 Cents*

        Ah, I should’ve clarified that I fully support others’ rights and freedoms to participate or not. But no one should be pressured to at work, either way. Just…no.

        1. Jack McCullough*

          Good point, but I absolutely do not support the rights and freedom of anyone to participate in a religious ritual as part of any governmental activity.

      2. Jane Anonsten*

        Devout Christian here, too — this is one of the places where I try to use my privilege at work; I’ve been the one to speak up against doing a “Christmas Party” or including prayers at those types of things noting that it’s not in line with our company’s DE&I goals and, regardless of that, is a pretty lousy thing to do to our coworkers who have other faiths or no faith at all.

    3. learnedthehardway*

      Here too – I am a Christian and this kind of performative religiosity infuriates me. (I might or might not bow my head – depending on whether I felt the prayer was genuine or whether it was “vain repetition”. Either way, though, I fully support the rights of other people to not participate.)

    4. Cynan*

      I’m a Christian, too, and even *in church* I’m uncomfortable with some of this stuff. Absolutely has no place in the workplace (and doubly so in government).

    5. ariel*

      I appreciate this sentiment, but Christians are “safe” even if they don’t bow their heads/look like they’re praying, in a way that others who are not aren’t.

  11. Ash*

    Fellow Virginian here, I have no advice, just commiseration. I wouldn’t be surprised if the now optional participation in prayer is on Youngkin’s list of rights to obliterate.

    1. ChemistryChick*

      Same here. Three more years of this flustercluck.

      If you’re not following Louise Lucas on Twitter, you should. She’s the President pro tempore of the VA Senate and just awesome. I would love to see her run for Governor.

          1. ChemistryChick*

            He really can’t. Virginia law prohibits any sitting governor from running for re-election. We’re quirky like that.

            1. OlympiasEpiriot*

              And it is a wonderful law. However, some years back, my city voted to add term limits. It was a ballot measure that won by a LOT.

              Then a mayor somehow got the city council to negate it and got a 3rd term. I still don’t know how that happened. I still hate Michael Bloomberg with a passion as a result.

              There’s been a lot of odd things these last few years and all I’m saying is don’t count on anything. Be ready to defend laws or customs you thought were well-established.

          2. NotAnotherManager!*

            He’s got to sit out a cycle. Virginians are crabby about the governor running for re-election while in office (or getting too comfy there), so they can’t serve consecutive terms. (The guy who ran against Youngkin, Terry McAuliffe, was governor from 2014-2018.)

            Youngkin is not waiting around to run again in 4 years, he’s got his eye on higher office. I wouldn’t be surprised if he runs for senate or even president.

  12. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    There are plenty of Christians who don’t approve of ostentatious public prayer like this either.

    1. Anon for this*

      Including Christ. As an atheist who doesn’t always feel safe outing myself as such around evangelicals, citing Matthew chapter 6, verses 1-7 can be a handy defense. (That’s the
      Jesus said ‘don’t make a big deal of praying in public’ ” part)

      1. Eric Christenson*

        “Do not pray on the street corners, as the hypocrites do, but pray instead in secret, to the one who sees [in secret]” is the bible quote that comes to my mind.

    2. Temperance*

      Sure, but what does you saying this do except #NotAllChristians the conversation? It’s not helpful to AAM, or OP, or anyone reading.

      1. Roland*

        It’s relevant since OP asks if they must reveal that they are atheist. Seems like ABET is saying no, you don’t.

      2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

        To clarify and extend, my point to OP was to say “you are not alone”. Lots of people – Christian or not – would disapprove or be actively offended by this.

        Being defensive about Christianity was the last thing on my mind.

  13. Your Computer Guy*

    I’m a lot of “different” things–lesbian, vegetarian, left-handed–but the number one thing that has gotten me the most openly negative, offensive comments is being an atheist. I therefore try not to use the term in the workplace, even though I work somewhere very secular, in pursuit of my goal of getting along to get along. I keep things vague or just say “I’m not religious” if it comes up.
    I like the language from Jon, it maintains a polite fiction very aptly. Would it be nice to be more open and honest? Yes. Do most of us need the income and health insurance from our jobs? Also yes. Good luck OP!

    1. ArtsNerd*

      I was the only American in a tour group in Turkey (pre-Erdoğan) and the other travelers were asking the guide about how Islam plays into culture in both formal and informal ways. Then they asked me something about how I interact with Christianity as an American. I said “oh I’m not religious.” Someone was legitimately confused by that answer. Was I spiritual, but rejected organized religion? Agnostic? “Oh, um… I’m atheist.”

      The group was confused why I wouldn’t feel comfortable just saying outright. It was the first time I truly realized how weird it was that I needed to treat it like a shameful secret.

      1. Your Computer Guy*

        A few years ago I discovered that I had gotten too deft at the religion dodge with my earnestly devout Christian but not pushy mother-in-law and father-in-law.
        I had been pretty relieved that they had not brought up anything about religion and how my also-atheist wife and I were raising our kids. Turns out this was because they thought I was religiously Jewish (instead of just ethnically so) and that I was going to raise my kids Jewish. When I said I wasn’t actually religious my mother-in-law started talking about how she felt children needed to be raised with some sense of something spiritual and I very suddenly had something to attend to in another room. Just straight up fled the conversation and abandoned my wife (she forgave me). Apparently the talk petered out awkwardly and it’s never come up again.

  14. Resident Catholicville, U.S.A.*

    Oof, LW, I’m sorry you’re in this position. I’ve worked at a few places where this has come up and had varying degrees of discomfort with how religion, particularly worship of Jesus, was presented. Two times I’ve worked for organizations owned by religious entities, so that was slightly more understandable. The trucking company I worked for that put out newsletters from the company pastor (!) and started a lot of meetings with prayer was…unexpected and less understandable. Fortunately, I’ve always been pretty low on the totem pole and there wasn’t expectations of participation.

  15. going anon for this*

    This advice is good, but I think it’s very unlikely LW will be asked or pressured to participate in these prayers. Public references to religion and prayer by politicians are a very normal part of American politics, for better or worse (I think worse). And this is true even for many/most Democratic politicians, especially in the south. I know Youngkin is controversial for other reasons, but I don’t see this as unusual or noteworthy, to be blunt.

    I’ve never heard of someone in a career government position being pressured to pray or otherwise participate in religious speech or acts by a politician or their office. I’m sure it has happened, but it’s rare. And I have worked for a legislative support agency in a state with a governor and legislature even more conservative than Virginia’s is right now.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      LW has valid reason to believe their boss is in fact going to say something, in this case. I can totally imagine an optics-focused boss asking for LW to bow their head for appearance’s sake. You don’t need to be praying to bow your head! Be a team player!

      Especially if LW is senior enough in their agency to be up on the stage with the governor, or otherwise visible in any photos/footage.

    2. Voracious Virago*

      Religious dogma showing up in American politics to some extent or another may be “normal”, but it shouldn’t be, and certainly this level of it would be egregious even in many areas in the US.

      And this practice IS, in and of itself, pressure to participate in religious speech/acts. Saying it’s “unlikely” OP will face such pressure is like saying it’s unlikely someone will be pressured to drink when they’ve already been forced to attend a mandatory meeting at a gastropub where every employee is brought a whiskey flight they are not given the opportunity to decline.

    3. OlympiasEpiriot*

      I have heard from acquaintances in the USAF that certain people got a lot more face time with certain higher ranks due to prayer groups. Semi-coerced prayer groups.
      乁⁠[⁠ ⁠◕⁠ ⁠ᴥ⁠ ⁠◕⁠ ⁠]⁠ㄏ

      1. Kit*

        I will offer the grain of salt that the Air Force is notoriously the branch of the armed forces with the most pernicious and virulently pro-(their kind of)-Christian sentiment – not that this is in any way acceptable or appropriate, but it’s not quite as pervasive in other branches of the military or in the civil service, federally speaking.

    4. Observer*

      ut I think it’s very unlikely LW will be asked or pressured to participate in these prayers.

      And your basis for this, in the face of the OP’s read of his situation, is what, exactly?

      I’ve never heard of someone in a career government position being pressured to pray or otherwise participate in religious speech or acts by a politician or their office. I’m sure it has happened, but it’s rare.

      Just because you never heard of something doesn’t mean that it never happens. It doesn’t even mean that it is rare. And even if it were, that’s not relevant here, where the OP specifically has reason to believe that they superior WILL try to put pressure on them.

      Allison’s rule about taking LW’s at their word is not just to make people feel welcome. It’s also the most pragmatic thing, because unless the LW, in their letter or in later comments, says something to raise questions or shows a true lack of understanding of their context, the reality is that they are most probably correct about what they are seeing. Even if it is not the norm, because exceptions do happen.

      And I have worked for a legislative support agency in a state with a governor and legislature even more conservative than Virginia’s is right now.

      Which tells me that you probably HAVE encountered problems and did not recognize what it is you were seeing.

  16. IDIC believer*

    I (65+) had hoped to live to see all the religious stuff permanently removed from nonreligious venues (work, government, sporting events, etc.), but sadly no longer believe that will ever happen and certainly not within my lifetime. Why such a personal choice can’t be kept personal is just ridiculous IMO. We can “live” our beliefs, values, and morals at work without publicizing them or trying to ‘other’ our coworkers or citizens.

    1. BellyButton*

      RIGHT?! As an atheist I am more angry and outraged for the non-Christian religious people! I don’t care about religion, their prayers mean nothing to me, so bowing my head and sitting there quietly doesn’t really bother me. But I get so angry for those who do believe in a different religion and they are forced to listen ad participate. Christianity isn’t the only religion and stop forcing it on everyone else. I have never been forced into any religious ritual by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists.

      1. Zennish*

        FWIW, as a Zen Buddhist I more or less consider religious beliefs useful fictions at best, and destructive delusions at worst, that have very little to do with reality either way. This of course includes my own beliefs as well, which I try to keep on the “useful fiction” side.

        I’m mostly just saddened that some people are so trapped by their own delusions that they feel compelled to force others into following them too.

      2. UKDancer*

        Same. I am an atheist but I am happy to sit through blessings / prayers with a blank look on my face and my eyes shut because they mean nothing to me. I went to a tango event in a church hall (not uncommon in England – for dances to use the parish hall) and the vicar came in and blessed the event (which was a bit unusual). I didn’t mind but one of my friends who was a practising Hindu was quite miffed at the presumption we’d all be ok with it.

    2. ArtsNerd*

      My mother was easily swayed by right-wing talking points, despite being wholly reasonable when it came to real people and not “the democrats” as an abstract.

      At some point she said, in dismay “Your aunt was telling me they can’t even say prayer in your old schools anymore. It’s just a moment of silence!”

      My sisters and I were horrified. “Mom, not only did we never have prayers in school, we didn’t have *moments of silence* either.”

      p.s. one of my sisters conscientiously abstained from the Texas pledge of allegiance (it’s a thing!) starting in elementary school because her loyalty was with the Union. I can’t imagine how she’d cope with an effing prayer in class!

      1. Gracely*

        Literally no one is going to stop a kid from quietly praying in school on their own. Schools just can’t mandate/enforce a school/teacher/principal-led prayer. The “there’s no more prayer in schools” thing is just a lie perpetuated by people who think it will get them votes (which sadly, it does).

        I’ve always said, as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools, so people who think there isn’t, need to chill out.

      2. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Mike Huckabee made some terrible Christian, right-wing movie about the Bible being banned in schools.

        Except all schools can have Bibles in them and use it as literature. Teachers just can’t try to convert students.

        But I suspect Mike knew that already…

        1. La Triviata*

          I’m old enough that, in elementary school, we had mandatory prayers and readings from the bible. My family was not religious – my father was atheist and my mother thought religion was stupid – but most of the town was Catholic. I was kind of relieved when the mandatory prayers and bible readings stopped, since I didn’t really understand what was going on.

        2. Queenie*

          My sophomore HS English teacher was a former nun, and made sure we knew it. When the third or fourth book in that year’s curriculum turned out to be the Old Testament, every single parent from my class showed up in the dean’s office to file complaints. Just to make sure that she didn’t stray into proselytizing.

  17. BellyButton*

    Atheist here, if I am in someone’s home or event I will bow my head and honor their beliefs. At work, NO. If someone wants to say a prayer I will sit there quietly and stare off into the distance. I have been anti-religion and atheist since I was in elementary school, even way back then when people prayed before sporting events and other student activities I just stood there uncomfortably.
    Luckily no one has ever said anything to me about it. I am not sure how I would respond.

    1. Bexy Bexerson*

      Same here. Weddings, funerals, holiday dinners with family members who like to pray before eating…I close my eyes and bow my head during prayer. I might even mumble an “amen”.

      But if I encountered prayer in a work environment (thankfully I haven’t yet)…no fucking way.

    2. Slightly Less Evil Bunny*

      I take the opposite stance. I’m not going to bow my head, I’m not going to say ‘amen’, and I’m certainly not going to kneel. Even if old women do give me the stink-eye during a Catholic wedding ceremony.

      Part of me wonders if all of the ‘just going along’ stuff has actually made things worse. If performative Christians have never seen any pushback, they can go right along assuming that everyone believes as they do.

      1. I have RBF*

        I’m pagan. During weddings, funerals, and family dinners that have Christian prayers I will bow my head and then just sit quietly. IMO, church weddings and funerals are very uncomfortable for me, since I’m an ex-Christian, but I attend them respectfully since it’s friends or family involved.

        But those are private events. At work or in public? Nope. I will just stand there quietly, probably a frown on my face. If someone calls me on it I’ll point to Matthew6:5-6, and yes, I will think less of the people doing it for being hypocrites if they claim to be “Bible believing Christians”. Public prayer made me uncomfortable when I was a Christian, now it’s even more so.

  18. Nobby Nobbs*

    Fucking Youngkin’s just determined to be the first two-time nominee for Worst Boss of the Year, isn’t he. No advice, just commiseration from another Virginian.

  19. Darsynia*

    I just want to say that even when I openly considered myself a Christian, I would refuse to take part in things like this because it is inappropriate and uncomfortable for non-Christians. The reason I’m telling you this is because it IS possible to fully believe in the same God as that governor does and still refuse to participate. I would demur in the way that is suggested, ‘my spirituality and beliefs are very personal to me and I prefer to keep them that way’ sort of language. I happen to be the child of a Catholic Priest, so I would bring that up to make people who pushed back uncomfortable (because they’re expected to be celibate).

    I’m sorry you’re going through this. As a child, I attended a public school that was *RIFE* with prayer. It must have been frustrating and othering for the students who attended and were not Christian. This is wrong, and we have laws to protect people (they ought to protect you from even having to push back!). They should be deterring this behavior but I agree with the commenter who suggested that this particular situation is tempting a court case to strengthen Christian supremacy.

    1. Delta Delta*

      I went to a public school like this, too. There was always this huge push for everyone to go to the weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting that was technically before school (except there was an optional zero-hour class that met during that time, so it was during school). One of the French teachers was super into church and the Bible and would often incorporate “where do you go to church?” into basic vocabulary and speaking lessons instead of the age-old standard “where is the library?” Although my family attend a church, I was just contrarian enough (and interested in the first amendment enough) that I conscientiously objected to all this.

    2. Quiet Riot*

      When my daughter ran cross country for her high school, all of the meets were preceded by a prayer, led by the coach. I seethed but didn’t want to make trouble for her in our pretty conservative rural-burb area. I hated the assumption that everyone believed the same thing. My husband and I were both raised Catholic (and for many reasons are no longer practicing) and we didn’t see this when we were in high school in the 80s!

      1. Temperance*

        What SUPER sucks now is that this sort of awful school public prayer is A-okay, according to the Supreme Court.

      2. Jackalope*

        As someone who is also Christian, this has always just seemed weird to me. Why would you have an official prayer before each meet? Are you just praying that no one gets injured during the meet? Praying that your opponents will lose? What even is the point?

    3. Appletini*

      Thank you for saying this. There’s a thread above all about #NotAllChristians. Your comment is a much better refutation of the idea that Christians largely support this kind of performative malarkey.

  20. Ann Onymous*

    I’m a Christian and I am very uncomfortable with public prayer as part of any secular event. I would also have a hard time participating in a prayer led by someone who’s version of Christianity pushes many view points that I find deeply offensive.

  21. yala*

    I’m Catholic, and it still infuriates me when our horrible public library board president (who got the rules changed to he could be president twice in a row, and is, again, horrible) insists on opening and closing each monthly meeting with a prayer. He also puts on a MASSIVE wooden crucifix.

    I think what makes it so galling is that…there’s nothing spiritual or honest about it. It’s a pure flex. A demonstration of his power to do whatever he wants, and a way to make it clear from the getgo that he does not care about anyone the library serves who does not meet with his personal approval.

    I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this at your workplace. I wish I had advice. At least I can just walk out of meetings, since I’m there as a citizen, no staff.

  22. anon for religious practice or lack thereof*

    I’ve used, “Sorry, public display of prayer is against my practices.”

    In my case, yeah, it’s because I don’t generally partake in religious observance (though I’ve made exceptions for labor protests, where the prayers tend to be human-focused, asking for us to march in love, and for those opposing us to open their hearts and minds, and I like the historical and cultural process of a Seder). For some of my coworkers, it’s because the prayers are of the incorrect faith. But there are also a subset of passionately Christian people for whom observances are strictly private (I believe they cite Matthew 6, as google seems to confirm).

    OP, I don’t think your fellow atheists would hold it against you if you said, “it’s a bit like Matthew 6.” (I mean…it is indeed a bit like that…in that it goes against your beliefs.)

  23. Parenthesis Guy*

    “You cannot be required to participate in prayer. You cannot be told to bow your head or say “amen.” You must be allowed to sit quietly and not participate, as you have been doing. They also cannot forbid you from attending public events or work events if you decline to perform religious observance in the way they want.”

    With this Supreme Court? Seems risky.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, with this Supreme Court. This is the law of the land until/unless it’s officially changed.

      I am no fan of this Supreme Court, but let’s be clear on what our rights are and not give them up preemptively.

      1. going anon for this*

        I am not a lawyer, but while this Supreme Court is moving in concerning directions regarding religion, but I don’t think one of them will be allowing politicians to pressure employees to participate in Christian acts and speech. If anything they’re moving in the opposite direction, where they’re allowing people to cite religion to exempt themselves from reasonable, no religious requirements of a job.

        1. Lacey*

          Yes, this Supreme Court is HUGE on religious freedom, which means freedom for Athiests as well.

          And it’s so clear that any legal council is immediately going to tell OP’s boss they absolutely cannot coerce this religious expression.

          1. Union Organizer*

            No, it doesn’t. It means “freedom for atheists and non-Christians until they do something the Supreme Court doesn’t like.” Like, do you seriously think the various cases from Jews, Satanists, etc. trying to use religion to end-run Dobbs will go anywhere? Pretending that the court maintains consistency in its rulings is part of how we got an unaccountable legal system in the first place.

            Does that mean OP shouldn’t exercise the legal rights they have? Absolutely not. Like Alison said, giving up in advance is a mistake. But we shouldn’t be telling them that the law is gonna save them, because it’s not.

          2. Katie Impact*

            There’s currently a push among right-wing think tanks to argue (ahistorically) that “freedom of religion” was only ever intended to mean freedom to choose which Christian denomination to follow, but fortunately it hasn’t yet gained much traction in actual courts.

  24. Miss Liss*

    Hello fellow atheist! I’m going to say something that isn’t popular but very true for those of us who have experienced it. We need to pick our battles in the professional world so as not to destroy opportunities for ourselves. I used to work for a large Catholic run hospital organization (don’t get me started on THAT topic). I was a good employee but I did not accept religion into my bubble. Didn’t bow or clasp my hands or go to prayer meetings or put a Bible verse on my email. Was I “technically” discriminated against as a result? Nope. Was I actually discriminated against in a thousand little ways that made work and the relationships difficult? You betcha. I don’t necessarily regret it now because my career is in a good place and that system had to sell out because of how poorly they ran everything. It worked out. However, the frustration and anger at the time is something I wish I could have avoided. I would not have pretended to be someone I am not. I would have looked inward to figure out a better way to fight the system without them seeing me coming. There are ways to rock the boat without being seen holding the oar or the sides.

  25. Lilo*

    I also live in Virginia and Youngkin is such a snake. Just do whatever you need to and let’s hope Virginia doesn’t massively disappoint us again.

  26. Lacey*

    Love the “it’s personal” line. I really hope that’s all it takes.

    And, I know that being in a bit of a cultural bubble might mean your boss doesn’t know – but not all Christians even bow their heads to pray. It’s looked on as quite a strange, sometimes suspicious, tradition by Christians who didn’t grow up with it.

    Then there are also Christian traditions that teach it’s wrong to mix up faith and politics – because they believe (not without cause) that it will taint their faith.

    So there’s plenty of cover for you to decline this without revealing more than you want to about your beliefs. Not that you should need to hide them – but it doesn’t sound like something you want to get into.

    1. Ginger Baker*

      I used to go to church with my mother-in-law when visiting her with my then-husband. I was not raised with any religion and would describe myself as “basically atheist” but went because it was The Done Thing in that family. Once, while trying desperately to stay awake, I walked up to the preacher when he called for people to come up. Only, apparently this time it was not the “usual” walk up but some special “reconfirm your commitment to Jesus” thing – which I didn’t realize (since I had been barely awake!) until my MIL afterwards was SO HAPPY to “welcome me” into the church etc. etc. I was very bewildered but eventually my then-husband pulled me aside to quickly discreetly clue me in. I called my sister later and said “…wtf what do I do with this now??” and she wisely told me “your relationship with Jesus [aka none] is personal to you and Jesus and is no one else’s business so I think you can ABSOLUTELY let her go on believing whatever she wants to and you have no obligation to correct her!”.

  27. Diatryma*

    I would feel most comfortable with a Von Trapp-style “No thank you, I don’t pray in public.”

    But I’m also wary of a fight every time this comes up. Like the shift coverage question from earlier today– or the leather one, for that matter– what we wish to be is not always what is.

  28. Mockingjay*

    I pulled up a copy of Virginia’s constitution and typed “religion” in the search bar. This is what came up:
    “but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

    Religion is covered in Article I. Bill of Rights, Section 16. Free exercise of religion; no establishment of religion.

    Link in reply.

  29. katydid*

    “An employer cannot force its employees to conform to, follow, or practice their employer’s chosen religious practices and beliefs.”

    — is this true for private educational institutions run by religious organizations or on religious principles? I am a teacher and I have come across a lot of language in job postings for Christian schools referring to the candidate’s “relationship with Christ” as a part of the job requirements; I also know that Catholic school employees have to agree to abide by the policies of the Catholic church, including not attending Pride events or pro-choice rallies, things like that. In a “right-to-work” situation, like most, couldn’t refusal to participate be framed as “just didn’t fit with our workplace culture” as justification for termination?

  30. Teapot, Groomer of Llamas*

    Wow. It’s like Governor Youngkin is mad he lost out as Worst Boss last year and is doubling down.

  31. Lizy*

    I’m Christian, and I rarely close my eyes for prayer. I’m hard-of-hearing and it helps me to “hear” if I can lip-read so there’s that.

    I also think a political leader has no cause to lead rooms in prayer (!) at any sort of goverment-related function at all. Do I think they should be able to talk on the campaign trail about how their faith has helped them? Absolutely, but that’s basically it. If you’re doing anything where you’re acting as a government official, keep your trap closed.

    I really like hearing from athiests about how they wouldn’t want to specify that “religion is personal to me”. I think that’s a very valid point and arguably using that language perpetuates the problem.

    What about “Religion is not a part of the workplace, and I appreciate Gov reminding us of why that is.” (Ok… maybe too snarky lol)

    “Religion is not a part of the workplace, so I follow the government’s guidelines to not promote any particular religion or set of beliefs.”

  32. Ex-prof*

    Can I suggest a little tweak, just in case the letter writer prefers not to imply that she has a religion? Instead of “My religion and spirituality…” how about “This” or “These things”? “This is very personal to me, and I’d prefer to keep it out of the workplace.”

    1. Mf*

      You could also say “My beliefs are very personal…”

      A little ambiguity isn’t a bad thing of the OP is worried they might be discriminated against for being an atheist.

    2. I exist*

      Another way to adjust could be “I think religion is personal (skip the “to me”) and I prefer to…”

    3. Lucky Meas*

      I like that a lot. Keeps it vague so they can think you’re not Christian, and you as an atheist don’t have to claim you have spirituality or beliefs.

  33. ENFP in Texas*

    I’d go with “I’m not a Christian, and I will not participate in any Christian prayers or observances. Especially not in the workplace.”

    I’d they ask “What are you?” then answer “That’s irrelevant. I’m not going to participate in a public prayer. Especially not at work.”

    I’m pagan, and while I haven’t had the “Why aren’t you praying with us” question, I do get the occasional “Why don’t you celebrate Christmas / Easter / Good Friday” question.

    1. Caroline*

      ”I have no supernatural beliefs” works for me, or if someone is very irksome ”oh no thank you! I’m a humanist!” You have to be very, very cheery, with a sunny smile for best effect.

  34. Hi from Pickles Gap*

    Here to say I read the headline of the article and assumed you were talking about my home state of Arkansas. I work for a private company here with a strong DEI focus, so fortunately don’t have this issue. Anywhere outside of work is another story. I’ve been to plenty of public school or government events that start or end with a prayer, and get plenty of looks when I don’t participate. Best of luck to OP.

  35. VP of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    I’m reminded of my favorite line from “Dune” (the 1984 film)…

    ”When religion and politics ride in the same cart, the whirlwind follows.”

  36. Llellayena*

    I’m Catholic (at least raised as such and still attend) and I’m very uncomfortable with public prayer, even in church-adjacent settings (like choir or church based volunteering). Public prayer is basically someone else deciding what you should think is important to pray about and HOW you should pray about it. I’d probably be staring off into the distance for that too AND raising objections with whatever the government version of HR is. Are there any Christians in the office who are uncomfortable? Sometimes you have to start from “their side” to get heard.

  37. ACM*

    There’s some verses in the book of Matthew that talk about how when you pray, don’t pray in public. I feel like that could be figured into a reply if the boss comes around

    1. Snarky McSnarkerson*

      Yes, it was mentioned above as Matthew 6: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

    2. RVMan*

      Matthew 6 – 5 – And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synogogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

      I suspect that quoting that wouldn’t go over well.

  38. DrSalty*

    Re: the last line in your letter (“… they don’t realize that employees of other faiths and no faiths exist as well.”)

    That is a VERY generous take, OP.

  39. AnneSurely*

    “I think he and his staff have been around people who believe exactly like them for so long that they don’t realize that employees of other faiths and no faiths exist as well.”

    I think that is an overly charitable view. How does one become the governor of an entire state but stay so sheltered that they believe that? I agree it’s likely that he was probably raised and then has chosen as an adult to socialize within homogeneous communities that do not challenge his worldviews. But to rise to a position of power like he has, he absolutely knows better and is choosing to ignore it.

    That said, nobody should feel like they might be putting their career in danger by speaking up, and I totally understand the hesitancy to do so until/unless there is no choice. And I hope that people who are in positions of relative power, who have the political capital (literally or figuratively), are increasingly willing to do so.

  40. CU*

    For what it’s worth, this is a problem for some Christians also. I belong to a denomination that views joint prayer as a sign of fellowship, so we don’t pray with those outside our denomination. I’ve dealt with the same situation where I have sat quietly during a prayer without bowing my head or saying amen. When confronted, I have simply said that praying with people whose beliefs I don’t know is against my belief. I am also uncomfortable with mixtures of government and religion like this; I think it’s bad for government and religion.

  41. JustMe*

    I’m an athiest working for a Catholic university. My department is run by a priest and I regularly interact with the clergy. I have literally never been asked to pray. I actually went into the job expecting that I would frequently just have to participate in some faith-related activities as a member of the faith-based institution, and it still has not happened. Work and faith are kept pretty separate, with practicing employees really just having the occasional added perk of being able to go to an on-campus mass on certain holy days if they really want to.

    Throwing this in just to add that even in ostensibly religious workplaces this is not necessarily the norm. And Youngkin is most definitely not holier than the priests and nuns that I work with.

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      Same. I worked for a Yeshiva High School and am an atheist. It never came up and I never was asked to participate in any religious activities at all tho I did attend many activities and events that were primarily religious in nature. I was politely silent and no one ever seemed to notice and no one ever said anything.

      1. Punk*

        For what it’s worth, Judaism is a closed religion with no conversion/evangelism component. You were never pressured to participate in religious activities it just isn’t done. It’s not the same baseline expectation as working in a religious Christian setting and wondering if they’ll lay on the pressure.

        1. metadata minion*

          Judaism allows conversion, it just doesn’t encourage it and specifically forbids evangelism.

          1. Observer*

            While Judaism does allow conversion, proselytizing is absolutely out.

            I would also point out that the particular group you point to is very different from the kinds of groups the actually run Yeshiva High Schools. Yeshiva HS tends to be part of communities whose commitment is far deeper, far more encompassing and far more religious and religiously active than 18Doors. Yet even 18Doors is careful to say that they are NOT trying to push anyone or even “secretly hoping” people will decide to convert.

  42. fighting for the right to exist*

    God may or may not exist, but Satan does and Youngkin and his ilk are proof.

  43. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    I think it is likely that opening events with a prayer–especially from a minister–without allowing other religious traditions to have their clergy present a prayer sometimes is unconstitutional in itself, even before the forced participation question.

  44. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Can OP state that it is important to represent people that may not feel the way the governor does?
    “I think it is important for the participants to realize that the governor understands that not all people follow his faith. Having a member of his team illustrate this by standing is important to his over all message of representing everyone.”

  45. Blarg*

    I know this isn’t the point, but I thought Alison was west coast based for some reason. Howdy from DC!

  46. Susan*

    Keeping religion out of the workplace in the US seems to be a lot harder than just declining to participate. If it was this simple, then there wouldn’t be employees whose contraceptives (and elective abortions?) weren’t covered by their employer-provided healthcare, based on the company’s religious beliefs. (As if a company can have any.)

  47. triplehiccup*

    I like Allison’s line about religion being private and personal. That was my stance with religious coworkers in the past. Ironically I got the idea from my wife’s very Christian extended family. Most are active congregants and a few are pastors. They generally object to public prayer and religion in politics on biblical as well as constitutional grounds; in their interpretation, “taking the Lord’s name in vain” is making a show of your religious practice, using it for personal gain (like a political career), and praying for frivolous things like sports victories. Frankly I got a kick out of using a commandment to chide pushy zealots once or twice.

  48. WWIII is coming*

    Can you say you are not a Christian? Leave it at that? IDK, but I have no issues with being an atheist, and I’m Jewish and have never been in this situation. Where I work I’m the only Jewish person and have had no issues.

    1. Caroline*

      I’d say do that, but as a long time atheist – never at work, thankfully – what tends to happen is that then they say ”right, but same God, right? Right?” and beam at you expectantly.

      ”I’m an atheist, I don’t have any supernatural beliefs. I’ll just stand quietly, thanks for understanding”.

  49. I'm Done*

    As a former federal employee and Atheist, I feel your pain. Having been subjected many times to prayers during work related events and having chaplains pounce on me while I was working, I’m outraged for you. I really have no advice better than what was given but frankly I’m tired of Atheists having to soft pedal this issue while religious fanatics in positions of power get to subjugate the law with no consequences.

    1. Moonstone*

      Oh my word yes! You have pinpointed my problem with this issue in general – that atheists are the ones that have to “soft pedal this issue” for fear of pissing off the fanatics and I’m so sick of it!

      The government, the law, public schools – all of those should be agnostic. The separation of church and state is vital to a functioning democracy and too many politicians don’t see it that way.

  50. An Australian in London*

    I’ve had some success with this by quoting Matthew 6:

    [5] And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
    [6] But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

    King James version

  51. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Mike Huckabee made some terrible Christian, right-wing movie about the Bible being banned in schools.

    Except all schools can have Bibles in them and use it as literature. Teachers just can’t try to convert students.

    But I suspect Mike knew that already…

    1. A Nonny Mouse*

      This is also my response to ‘they took prayer out of school!’. Um…no–I guarantee you that before exams, there are prayers. What should NOT BE, is Organized-by-the-school-or-a-school-official Prayer.

      But I’ve also come to believe (and came to in HS 20 years ago) that saying the Pledge (or standing, or honoring it) also shouldn’t be required.

      I DO remember this coming up in Middle School in 8th grade (so about 95ish) as my English teacher DID have us do some studying of the Bible as Literature. And she was very on the ball and pointed out that she was NOT trying to convert anyone nor do anything other than us studying part of it as part of our literature curriculum. (She also had us read A Wizard of Earthsea too. Hard teacher, but pretty fair.)

  52. Megaladondon*

    My new workplace (corporate law) blasts Christian rock music constantly. They incessantly talk about religion and politics. It’s truly horrible. We have clients in and out all day. I wonder what they think. Everyone is not Christian and conservative no matter where you live. Sigh.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Wow. I wouldn’t want any music playing at my office given the distraction issue. That alone is a problem, let alone what you are describing.

    2. A Nonny Mouse*

      I admit, I’ve come to side-eye places that have Christian rock music playing. I would probably side-eye ANY religious music (or chanting) playing in a place of employment but it’s always Christian Rock….

      It gets my hackles up (and my anxiety up) more than a place playing country music does (which also sets off a warning and anxiety for me). Then again, a place being advertised or having Obvious Christian symbolism is something I consider a red-flag.

      FYI, Pagan now, officially ‘agnostic’ but was raised loosely catholic.

      1. I have RBF*

        If I go into a Christian bookstore, I don’t get upset at Christian music playing. If I go into an occult or pagan bookstore, I usually hear some nice Celtic or new age instrumental music. If I go into a generic bookstore, or grocery store, or whatever, and I hear Christian music I’m gonna grit my teeth and maybe walk out, because they are telling me exactly who they are.

        1. A Nonny Mouse*

          If I go specifically into a Christian space (or any type of religious space) on my own voluntary will, I don’t get upset.

          I also know it is not at all *all* Christians. But there is a certain set and type that must be ‘loudly’ and/or ‘obviously’ Christian, and that is usually what sets my warning bells off. I have thankfully never had it directed at me, but I’m well aware that “I’ll pray for you” can be a threat.

  53. Gateworlder*

    I, too, was in a slightly similar situation many years ago. My state university designated Western Good Friday as one of their holidays (like July 4th). I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian and as some of you may know, my Easter does not fall on the same Sunday all of the time. It’s every 4 years. The school’s policy was that if we had a need for a religious day off, we can put in for vacation. The way I looked at it, I would be penalized because I’m Greek Orthodox and would have to use a vacation day for my Good Friday while others in my department didn’t have to give up a single day. (For the record, I take my faith seriously and will be at church all of Good Friday. So I wasn’t trying to get a free day off.) Luckily, I was able to work with my direct supervisor and receive work on those Good Fridays. I would then take a comp day for mine. My university was merged with another state university and 2 years after the merger, the Good Friday day off was gone. I’m very happy with that. It’s not the same thing as this question but it’s similar. Also, you are doing the right thing by not bowing your head. I do that as well. I don’t ascribe to work place religion because I find it offensive. I don’t preach or proselytize and therefore I don’t want it back. I’m really sensitive to the Church/State separation clause.

  54. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Wow. I wouldn’t want any music playing at my office given the distraction issue. That alone is a problem, let alone what you are describing.

  55. Caroline*

    ”Oh! Gosh! Well, the reason I don’t bow my head is that I’m not praying and performatively going along with it makes me feel icky, like it’s something we *have* to do or pretend to do, even if we may not share the beliefs, right? I’m good with just standing quietly for the duration” said really cheerfully, super-cheerfully. ”I really don’t feel like there’s room for religion in the workplace, so.” is another option.

  56. Lifelong student*

    I worked for many years at an organization sponsored by and staffed in part by an order of Benedictine monastics. It was a secular organization. I was never asked about my religious beliefs. I respect the fact that others have them. I will sit or stand silently as appropriate but do not participate. Never had a problem. When participating in events where sitting or standing at certain times is the norm, I sit or stand as indicated. It is a matter of not disrespecting others.

  57. Mr. Pond*

    I would just like to thank everyone in this comment thread for their words. I’ve been an atheist and worked in government for a long time and have run into similar situations seemingly all my life. It’s good to feel “seen” by this thread.

    That being said, the LW needs to figure this one out on their own. There have been several times I’ve kept my head down (literally) and sometimes I’ve felt I had to lie about being a Christian. It comes down to a myriad of factors, but in the LW’s case being allowed into the “room where it happened” may be more politically valuable than fighting for their rights in that moment. But it’s their choice.

    We’d all like to make that short, quippy, mic-drop moment, but in the long-run that might not be the right play.

    It’s a tough choice.

  58. Lizzianna*

    I wish I had an answer to this. But I can commiserate.

    I work for a Federal natural resources agency, and have heard more than one political appointee talk about Dominionism as a justification for rolling back policies I spent years on.

    It stinks. My faith shares some similarities with mainline Protestantism, so we can usually pass as Christian when we need to, but broke away from capitol-C Christianity over a century ago. It stinks to be in a room everyone being vocal about their beliefs has a very specific type of Christian beliefs, and they assume everyone else agrees. Usually, if I keep my head down (literally and figuratively), I can keep moving forward in my own way, but it can be exhausting.

    1. A Nonny Mouse*

      Ah Dominionism. I’d actually forgotten about that term but you are absolutely right in that’s what it is. I remember following communities and such in the early 00s and 10s that were tracking its rise.

      Sadly it almost comes across too conspiracy-theorist-like, and yet..it’s….not at the same time. *sigh*

  59. noname12345678*

    I hate living in Virginia. I hate the idea of paying state income taxes here. As a religious minority and parent to a trans teen, I am reminded every day of how we don’t belong here. Fortunately, NoVA public school systems have given a massive middle finger to Youngkin’s ridiculous policies.

  60. Another friendly, neighborhood atheist!*

    No advice, just solidarity. I work in government too, in a more liberal area, and our legislature STILL starts each morning with a ‘non-denominational” prayer. I think it’s fairly common (would love to hear from others) and so frustrating. So much for separation of church and state.

    1. Cary*

      Could you expand on your answer? im nit getting your point. It’s pretty clear her frustrations are with one particular man’s actions, not with a particular diety .

  61. Just*

    Well, LW’s boss was not bowing his head. He could only see what LW was doing if his head was up.

  62. AmericanWaterDog*

    As someone who has had to push back in the workplace on unquestioned assumptions that everyone is Christian (I’m a Fed), what has worked was “Those aren’t my beliefs.” Or, “That doesn’t have anything to do with my job.” Plus, I use a few questions when needed, things like “Are you doing anything for Eid/Passover/Kwanzaa/” — all religions I don’t practice but sufficient to shake up the accepted notion that everyone is Christian.

    And as a citizen of Virginia, my read on Youngkin is that its all performative. This is about nothing more than accumulating power for the national stage.

  63. Betsy S.*

    I’m Jewish and don’t bow my head during Christian prayers. I was taught to take what was called a respectful but not worshipful position: sit or stand still, hands laced (not prayerfully), eyes downcast (maybe a slight tilt of the head, but neck up, NOT a bow). Goal is to project an attitude of ‘minding my own business, thinking deep inward thoughts’. I may also close my eyes during a long prayer (as long as I can stay awake!)

    It *can* be a bit distracting or disruptive to move around a lot or make eye contact during a prayer, Finding a good neutral position will call much less attention to yourself. It will also make it WAY WAY harder for the boss to argue about it. (and I was also taught it was good manners, but I know manners vary)

    1. Betsy S.*

      PS I never really thought about the work situation before. But my gut sense is that even if the prayer is totally inappropriate, I don’t want to disrupt it.

      (I might reconsider if they’re praying for something outrageous like White supremacy or harm to others)

      My little town has a practice of rotating the opening prayer at town meeting. I’d have to check if we did , but many towns with this practice also rotate in a secular / atheist / humanist leader. I wonder how folks feel about that? In my particular town, the prayers tend to be short and very neutral, although some are less so than others.

      1. Marna Nightingale*

        I wish I’d seen your comment before adding mine, because yours is way better.

        My general feeling is that even if as soon as they stopped I was going to immediately go file a formal complaint about the inappropriateness of HAVING the prayer, unless the contents were in some way terrible I’m not going to interrupt or disrupt.

        I went to a university with a lot of Muslims and I live in an area with a lot of Muslims. It’s slightly unusual but not weird for someone in my immediate vicinity to check the time, put a mat down, and pray.

        The bigger issue is that the courtesy required for a Muslim undergrad borrowing a corner of a room and for Youngkin praying in public are the same, but if you explained that to Youngkin in those terms he would … give birth to a building material made from red clay, by a non-standard route.

  64. N00boss*

    I’m a practicing secular Buddhist and I’m currently setting up my own agency. My philosophy (I wouldn’t call it a “faith”) has influenced certain elements of how the organisation will be structured. I’m interested to know whether the commenters fell out would be appropriate to mention that in the “About us” section?

    And what about meditation? I will be taking time out of my work day to meditate (it’s helps me be the best I can be and that helps everyone I work with). I want to afford my employees that same opportunity without them feeling pressured to participate. How might I best handle that?

    1. Willow*

      Can you talk about your philosophy without specifically mentioning Buddhism? That seems like a way to communicate how your personal philosophy affects the way you run a business without bringing religion into it.

      1. Willow*

        For the meditation, maybe allow a break where employees can meditate, pray, take a walk, do some stretching, or get coffee, etc. Make it clear this is an optional break for whatever helps them clear their head and reset.

    2. Marna Nightingale*

      I think it’s entirely valid to talk about how Buddhist philosophy influences your business practices in an “about us” section.

      I think what I would do with the employees is say “I take this time off to meditate, so I feel you should all get the same amount of time as a break to do whatever you want. If meditation is already part of your practice you’re welcome to join me and you’re equally welcome to use the space at a different time.”

  65. AnonAthiest*

    Sorry this is so late, I didn’t want to type this at work. I am a closet atheist at work because I work at a church. When I was hired I still believed in a God and it wasn’t until some years later that I stopped believing. I can’t say anything about this at work because I’m sure I would be fired. There are times when I am conflicted at work….how can I work there when I don’t believe?, isn’t it silly to pray when I don’t believe, etc. But they are a good group of people. And, strangley enough they have preached at me far less in the years I’ve been there than one dude at a 2 hour long birthday party!

  66. Public Sector Cringe*

    Wish I had some advice! Crying in NYC city worker, where our mayor has recently announced he does not believe in separation of church and state. Luckily my role doesn’t require going to events with him and I don’t think he’s taken to public prayer at events…yet.

  67. VV*

    I usually say something like “I am not interested in that” to any kind of invite I don’t to do, but especially if I think it’s inappropriate.

    As bad and frustrating as Youngkin is, I will also mention that I’ve worked plenty of places in Virginia where those in charge did big public prayers where it was implied we were all to participate. Those leaders were not limited to Republicans/Conservatives. What I have found helps the most is not being among people you agree with, but with mixed company where there’s more of an attempt to find consensus or middle ground.

  68. Marna Nightingale*

    The rule for a non-citizen visitor when an anthem is played is that one stands, but does not sing or perform other gestures.

    I think that is a perfectly reasonable response to public prayer *in places where public prayer is appropriate and one is a guest or staffer*: just stand or sit quietly. It’s not like you’re taking that moment to run the coffee grinder.

    As for the general situation, ugh, I’m so sorry.

  69. Middle Generation Millennial*

    My answer would have been something akin to “I am a firm believer in the First Amendment,” translated as: “f—- off.”

  70. Verde*

    I think we need to start a new “religion”, the Most Holy Order of Nunya Business. Make it a real, official thing with website and pamphlets and all, and then when people ask you where you attend services you can legit say that you go to Nunya Business. And when they ask what the teachings are, you can list out the official stance on how it’s all none of anyone else’s business.

  71. Picard*

    Jon also offered this advice to employers:

    If you’re thinking of holding a prayer meeting, conducting spiritual discussions or rituals, or doing anything else remotely related to religion at your company, don’t. Religion has no place at work. Your employees have the unfettered right to practice the religion of their choice or not to practice any religion at all, and none of it is any of anyone else’s business.

    And louder please for those folks in the back!

    I live in rural VA and OMG am I tired of the psuedo Christians assumption of religion in EVERY DAMN CORNER OF LIFE.

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