Awareness of religious identity and diversity among employees and military service members in the workplace can bring many benefits to Army organizations and federal agencies around the world.

Freedom of religion is one of America’s most cherished rights, listed first among 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Congress, DOD and the Army value religious liberty as fundamental; and developed laws, regulations and policies to accommodate specific practices.

Soldiers and employees bring their beliefs and religious values to work, which can be a source of positive performance. Understanding and affirming individual religious identity goes a long way in management of associated diversity and freedom in the workplace.

There is growing interest in the areas of diversity, equality and social responsibility. Religious diversity is certainly part of that discussion. In the recent past, leaders and managers have been interested in resolving religious conflicts and tensions in the workplace, at times placing heavy emphasis on productivity and readiness at the expense of individual faith and practice. However, integration of faith and religious beliefs – in addition to being quite lawful – can be beneficial. Exposure to a variety of ideologies and practices may be useful for providing alternative approaches to management, innovation and spiritual readiness.

Religious cultural expertise and spiritual values of employees and Soldiers bring unique perspectives to management situations, often providing a creative practical approach to problem solving. Organizations and units that appreciate the value of religious and cultural diversity, while incorporating equality and diversity into their core values, build a strong workforce necessary to achieve business goals and unit missions.

Religious discrimination, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs.” The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.

“The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits and any other terms or conditions,” the EEOC further notes.

The newly revised regulation, DOD Instruction 1300.17, “Religious Liberty in the Military Services,” describes the department’s focus on the “Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” It instructs DOD components to “accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles or religious).” It further established that “religious prejudice … as well as anti-religious behavior or marginalization resulting in discrimination is incompatible with the law, DOD regulations and Army policy.”

Religious discrimination and repression often festers from a lack of understanding of different beliefs and cultural values, which may build into misunderstandings, resentment and conflict. First Amendment problems are created by asking service members to submerge the values of tolerance, pluralism and open-mindedness that have made the U.S. a unique democratic society.

Some discriminatory or non-inclusive practices may not be deliberate, stemming from a lack of awareness or understanding on the part of leaders and managers. For example, organizational work flexibility is usually not an issue during Christian holidays when employees expect ample time-off. However, in faith traditions such as Islam, Soldiers may require one-to-three short breaks per day for obligatory prayers, or request days off outside of typical block leave periods. Too often, these activities are viewed as operational inconveniences.

To achieve inclusiveness, religion must be part of the conversation. Faith and/or spirituality has positive benefits for the workplace as a source of performance. Christianity, for example, focuses on the concept of servant leadership by imitating Christ in his devotion to health and fair treatment. Buddhism stresses equanimity and compassion for workers and as a means for management. Islam forwards the principle of Ehsaan – advancement of welfare by being generous, forgiving and tolerant. Judaism supports the importance of equitable treatment, walking humbly, doing justice, showing courage and delegation of responsibility. Application of these principles results in a high-functioning work environment, ready to meet the mission.

Accommodating religious belief and practice is a moral and legal imperative in the Army as well as a cultural fixture in the U.S. Leaders and managers should be given appropriate training on methods to accommodate religion, and employees and Soldiers should be trained in how to request accommodation while taking into account unit mission or business needs.

Interestingly, the Army just published Executive Order 298-20 “Religious Liberty and Religious Accommodation,” directing training on the topic for leaders and Soldiers. You’ll be seeing more on this topic in the near future.