Monday, May 22, 2017

Arizona Welfare Agency Bans Political and Religious Speech

Shortly after its Roman Catholic director was fired by the governor, the Arizona Department of Economic Security implemented a policy incredibly — and unconstitutionally — imposing a sweeping ban on religious and political speech. This was done in order to squelch the culture that beloved and popular Tim Jeffries had cultivated at the agency. Jeffries was not afraid of displaying his devout Christianity and love for the First Amendment in public. He was fond of saying “Blessings” and prominently featured the state’s motto, Ditat Deus, which means God enriches, around the office. He also often quoted consequential figures (such as Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Ghandi) to emphasize the imperative of serving the poor, afflicted and disadvantaged with love, care and respect.

For that and more, Jeffries was slandered by employees and bureaucrats with grudges, who complained to organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the Secular Coalition of Arizona. Despite the fact Jeffries was the top reformer in Arizona State Government (in my opinion and many others concur), cleaning up the bloated welfare agency and increasing morale by large margins, the governor caved in to pressure and fired him the day before last Thanksgiving. While director of the agency, Jeffries reduced the agency headcount by 2 percent and planned additional streamlining to free up more resources for 1.6 million Arizonans who need the agency. Jeffries fired employees who bullied and harassed other employees. He fired employees who were not performing. He had employees who stole from the agency arrested. Jeffries even dared to go after a corrupt Democratic legislator who was illegally taking food stamps (an investigation that his predecessor squelched), and other high-profile investigations were progressing at the time of his firing.

Over 1,000 employees contacted Jeffries sympathetically after he was fired, he’d made such a difference. Many remain fiercely loyal to the reformer, and contact him regularly. DES employees have even hosted Jeffries for lunches, cocktails and dinners to thank him for his vigorous and loving efforts on their behalves. Jeffries was likely the governor’s only agency director to fulfill the governor’s directive to significantly reduce agency costs by rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. Every termination was legal in the right to work State of Arizona. Every quote Jeffries shared was constitutional in our United States of America.

Last week, part of what appears to be new guidelines for training approximately 8,000 DES employees throughout Arizona was leaked to the media. The revised policy bans religious speech within the agency. It states, “Topic of Religion is no longer allowed in class or in the office.” Specifically, “No religious quotes,” “No religious sayings,” and “Avoid mentioning blessings.” Incredibly, the policy doesn’t stop there. It goes on to ban all political speech, “No mention of politics.” Might as well pile on, squelching both clauses of the First Amendment while you’re at it. 

I asked DES if the document was distributed to all employees. Bizarrely, a spokesperson responded and said it was merely “partial meeting notes taken by a staff member during a staff meeting for one training unit within the Office of Professional Development.” If those are “notes,” that’s one incredible note taker; the document is professionally organized with subheadings, section numbers and letters, bullet points and titles. Even if was merely notes from a meeting, the verbal instructions to employees still trample on the First Amendment. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled extensively in this area. According to The First Amendment Center, “Public employees … can speak about religious matters in the workplace to a certain degree, particularly if the speech is not communicated to the general public.” In fact, the Center says they are generally even permitted to go as far as proselytizing, unless a fellow employee asks them to stop. 

The First Amendment specifically protects political and religious speech more than other types of speech. In the 1983 case Connick v. Meyers, the Supreme Court opined, “When employee expression cannot be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community, government officials should enjoy wide latitude in managing their offices, without intrusive oversight by the judiciary in the name of the First Amendment.”

I have worked for multiple government agencies, and politics and religion were popular topics between me and my co-workers around the water cooler. When I worked for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, there was an outcry because then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano merely tried to limit Christmas decorations to employees’ individual work areas. Employees from my section of the office responded by displaying Happy Holidays from the Loch Ness monster taped to a sorry looking plant located in a public area that looked like the mythical creature and Season’s Greetings from Bigfoot, with a horribly drawn sketch by yours truly if I remember correctly. 

How did this blatantly unconstitutional policy get put into place? Who drafted and approved it? There is no way Arizona Governor Doug Ducey — who is a Republican and Catholic — approved of something that clearly violates the Constitution. Someone in management at DES clearly has an ax to grind, and they apparently don’t care if it means trampling on the First Amendment rights of probably all 8,000-plus DES employees and contractors just to destroy the lasting legacy Jeffries created, where employees were appreciated and loved their jobs. Not to mention the cost to taxpayers if the agency is sued. 

DES management needs to rescind the offensive policy. Otherwise, do not be surprised if religious liberty and free speech organizations like First Liberty and the Alliance Defending Freedom — the latter which is headquartered in Arizona — escalate this to a constitutional lawsuit. As they should. If this trampling of our rights can occur in in a lone state government agency, it will continue elsewhere.

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