The pressure politics of prayer in the workplace

Judith Scott probably never set out to be a First Amendment heroine. But she is as far as I’m concerned. Scott has filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia for what she claims was a retaliatory firing. Her proselytizing boss at the Blacksburg, Va. Middle School, whose acts are detailed in her court filing, kept trying to force her to participate in unlawful prayer meetings and religious events at work.

I learned about Scott in the Collegiate Times, the campus newspaper of Virginia Tech. Driving to Blacksburg from Washington, D.C., one passes signs for Christendom College and other reminders that one is traversing Bible country. Small towns dot the angled landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Times reports that Scott was asked by her supervisor whether an unnamed person could "pray for her" and she complied out of a sense of pressure. She later declined to attend a religious conference with faculty members and was deluged by them with Christian-themed DVDs and audiotapes upon their return.

"The suit alleges that the supervisor would dim the library’s lights, hold prayer meetings, ‘anoint’ the premises and ‘lay hands’ on those present. The supervisor would also leave ‘praise’ sticky notes and daily Bible verses around for Scott to see."

The Times goes on to describe the pressure put on Scott to practice Christianity in what became a hostile work environment. It never explains whether Scott is a non-believer or a believer of a different faith. But she clearly put up with a huge amount of religious harassment before she filed her lawsuit.

She took her case first to the assistant school board superintendent and was offered a transfer to another facility. But she stood her ground and said she wanted to continue working as a media aid assistant right where she was, as she had done nothing wrong. That takes guts! When her contract ended it was not renewed. She claimed she was in essence, fired, in retaliation for her complaints.

President Bush’s eight-year tenure, in which religion formed and mis-formed federal laws, trumped science in federal policy and even may have been partly responsible for launching an unsuccessful war, allowed situations such as Scott’s to flourish throughout the land. This is hardly the only way in which the Bush presidency took us back 50 years. It is, however, a dominant theme of his tenure as is the takeover of the Republican Party by the religious right.

President Obama has turned back some of the most flagrantly religious driven Bush policies. Executive orders he issued during his first week in office rescinded Bush’s ban on most embryonic stem cell research. He also lifted the so-called global gag rule, which barred U.S. aid to charity groups overseas that provide abortion or even information about abortion to women in developing nations.

Judith Scott is hardly alone. One need only peruse the Web sites of Americans United for Separation of Church and State ( or the Freedom From Religion Foundation ( to find documentation of countless instances of religious discrimination perpetrated, even encouraged, during the Bush years. Americans United has a nine-point agenda it is asking Obama to follow. The group is asking him to ban faith-based job bias (as faced by Scott), restrict faith-based funding and end school vouchers (which are nothing but a federal bonanza for Christian and religious schools.)

Obama has already signaled his administration wants to address the concerns of the religiously oppressed in America, by mentioning "non-believers" in his inaugural address.

We enter the Obama presidency in an era in which freedom from religious oppression has become a bigger problem than freedom to practice one’s religion. President Obama, though himself a religious man, seems to understand that and let us hope he continues to act accordingly.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)