Those of us of a certain age remember the admonition as kids, even when it wasn’t directed at us. Perhaps we remember it from the cantankerous family gathering around the Thanksgiving table just after a particularly hot election, or as a discussion around certain holidays. Passions would stir, tempers would flare, and someone would eventually say, “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.”
Nothing stirs the blood more than God and flag. Every philosopher and politician throughout human history has known this, though some more instinctively than others. Marx and Engels, who invented modern socialism, made the mistake of forgetting this when they thought that appeals exclusively based upon human reasoning – that working people would consistently do what was best for working people – went unheeded and their philosophies essentially relegated, for the most part, to the ideological trash dump of history.
Human beings are passionate animals, and we are animals. We’re selfish, self-interested, defensive, protective and greedy by nature. We can overcome these darker angels to become good citizens, but only so much as everyone obeys this mutual compact.
So now it’s the hot time of the campaign season and we’re staring down the teeth of an election only days away, an election which will determine our country’s next president and which will, depending on where you are as you read this, determine who fills important legislative positions and what policies take shape from those election results.
No matter what your issue may be, whether you have one issue or many, you have an opinion, and so does the next person. Whether or not you share this opinion at the cocktail party – where the worst you can do is embarrass yourself – is one thing. Whether you should share it in the workplace is another. Employers be warned: sharing political opinions in the workplace, just by itself, might violate a New Jersey law called the “Worker Freedom from Employer Intimidation Act.” This law, N.J.S.A. 34:19-9 et seq., was passed in 2006. It’s actually fairly narrow. It prohibits employers from requiring employees to attend employer-sponsored meetings or participate in communication whose purpose is essentially political in nature. This would pertain to both political policy issues as well as to endorsement of particular candidates.
While the law does not forbid truly voluntary meetings, we all know that in the world of employment, where the boss has the economic power to compel both overtly and subtly, the word “voluntary” takes on a very fuzzy meaning.
Obviously, I’m not really concerned, as an employment and civil rights attorney, that there are too many employers violating this law, although there are some. Some employers may feel particularly strongly about issues because of personal, religious, social or cultural reasons, and some may have a purely economic interest. Because of their particular business sector, for example, they worry that particular election results might help or hinder their business model. Some employers, whether they’re aware of this law or not, will actually go to the extent of telling their workers that it’s in “your best interest to vote [for a particular candidate] if you want to keep your job.” Whether they intend to send the wrong message or not, the wrong message is often heard. The worker doesn’t “Elect this candidate so that our business can prosper and you can keep your job because we will not go under.” The worker hears, “Vote the way I want you to or else.”
As well, it’s no secret that religion and politics have created an unholy union over the last forty years ever since the “Regan revolution” religiousized politics and politicized religion. The “religious right” is now a major force in some states and has given birth to some particularly vicious and narrow views of certain political, cultural and even economic and military issues.
Just as passionately, the non-religious right, however they define themselves, is particularly passionate and angry about what they see as the religious right’s usurpation of the political process and the “religiousation” of the political process.
Nowadays, discussing politics is discussing religion to some extent, and discussing religion, to some extent, is discussing politics.
What’s a worker to do? Frankly, what’s a well-intentioned employer to do?
Be wary, that’s what. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits workplace harassment predicated upon religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, race, sex and other categories. Discussing politics, and especially, discussing hotly contested or important elections, especially recently, can often involve discussing gender, race, age, sexual orientation and religion. Maybe it’s President Obama’s fictitious “Muslim” faith or perhaps it’s the discussion of a progressive politician’s support of “sexual minorities” (though people who criticize such stances often don’t use the word “sexual minorities” – they use a much darker phrase). At the end of the day, whether it is prayer in schools, women’s health issues, race politics or gender politics, it can get ugly and nasty very quickly.
A worker must work. People have jobs because they need jobs. People on the job often can’t just get up and walk out of the office if they don’t like what they’re hearing the way they can at a cocktail party. That’s why we have laws that protect workers from employer indifference to situations that create hostile, intimidating or abusive working environments.
If a political or religious discussion becomes workplace harassment because it occupies racial, ethnic, gender or religious territory, it can begin to encroach upon the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and require the employer to stop the conduct immediately or face liability under the law.
Employees, don’t be afraid to complain, because you’re protected in your right to complain. Employers, don’t be afraid to put a stop to the conduct if it gets out of hand, because it’s your obligation to do so. Frankly, banning political discussion in the workplace and banning political expression in the workplace across the board, meaning, neither left nor right may impose their views on others, is the best policy. If people want to discuss politics and religion when they’re outside the office, that’s different, but both the Worker Freedom from Employer Intimidation Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination give fair and clear warning that “all is not fair in politics and war” in the workplace, no matter how close the election is and no matter how passionate you feel about the issues or the candidates.
If the journey to justice is not civil and respectful, no matter how passionately or deeply felt the views, then the road isn’t a road – it’s a swamp.