Federal agent John Parish entered the room with local Internal Revenue Service territory managers. The casual meeting was off-site during the holiday season. "Merry Christmas," Parish greeted his coworkers. Parish's supervisor corrected him, "It's Happy Holidays, not Merry Christmas."
"Many [Christians] are tired of being politically correct," said Parish. "People are saying 'I'm not going to be PC anymore. This is my holiday. It's Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings.' "
I spoke with Parish, a San Diego IRS group leader (a supervisor over a team of IRS agents), about being a Christian and working for the federal government. "Anything [Christians] do regarding our faith we have to do on our own time and outside of the work environment," said Parish. "There is confusion on what I can or cannot do at work as it relates to my faith. I always need to think about how far I can go without getting in trouble.
"Inside my work area, I keep a Bible because it is an enclosed office. However, for those who are in cubicles, anything that is deemed offensive has to be removed," said Parish. A Christian with a cross in his work area can be asked to remove it.
"There are more restrictions at work than there should be," said Parish. "I think expressing our faith should be allowable. For example, if I speak with a fellow employee who is having a personal crisis, I want to pray with him. If he is open to praying with me, I have to go to coffee, so it is our personal free time." Parish said his desire is to be able to pray with coworkers in the office.
"From my Christian perspective, my work is not the end, but the people I am working with are the end," said Parish. "I have specific tasks and duties to accomplish during the day, but above all of these, I consider the individual needs of the people I work with."
Outside of work, Parish is a deacon at Canyon View Christian Fellowship in Tierrasanta. As a deacon, Parish prays with people every Sunday. During the week, he leads a Sexual Relational Wholeness support group for "people who struggle with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism." He teaches a Living Waters program for people with abuse, addiction, codependency, lack of intimacy issues, and other relational problems. Parish remarked, "I'm one person at work and another person out of work."
Parish believes that the minority is the group that is pushing the agenda of separation of faith in the workplace. "It is the vocal minority, the ACLU and atheists that seem to have a legal pull," stated Parish.
"Our founding fathers would be surprised with how far things have gone. It was never intended to not have religion in the life of society." Parish said, "[The idea of separation of church and state] didn't come from the Constitution. The idea came from a letter from Thomas Jefferson." Parish was referring to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote January 1, 1802, stating the government should "'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."
Parish said that people have gone too far from the original intent of our founders. "People of faith founded this country. Religion is a very integral part of our nation. In fact, the whole legal system was founded on Judeo-Christian ethics, beliefs, and morals. You cannot take those from our society and have a viable society."
I also spoke with federal agent Henry Lee, an IRS group leader in San Marcos. Lee began our conversation with a disclaimer, "I do not speak on behalf of the IRS and all aspects of my faith are a private matter." Prior to our conversation, Lee spoke with human resources, media relations, and consulted a legal guide, Christian Rights in the Workplace, to ensure our conversation wouldn't jeopardize his work.
Lee served one year as the president of Christian Fundamentalist Internal Revenue Employees (CFIRE), an IRS-sanctioned group. "CFIRE operates under Presidential Executive Order 11491 [pertaining to labor and management relations in the federal service, signed in 1969]. This allows us, on our own free time, to meet. There are no additional costs incurred to the government," Lee remarked. People who join the group agree that the Bible is without error, God is a Trinity and Christ is the only salvation from hell. Its members gather in an IRS conference room once a week. During the meeting, they study the Bible, talk about each other's lives, and pray together.
I asked Lee if he ever felt persecuted for being involved in CFIRE or for his beliefs. "I can't say I've been persecuted. The only negative reaction I know about is people joking about my faith. I know that there are other people who question the validity of CFIRE. They do not believe we should be able to exist."
Lee views his work as secondary to his faith. As a Christian, he says the conversion of nonbelievers to Jesus Christ is more important. "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes," Lee recited to me part of Romans 1:16. Lee looks to speak about his faith in conversations. "People often ask what I did over the weekend," Lee said. "Because I'm so involved at my church, Calvary Chapel San Diego, it is easy to discuss what I believe." Lee emphasized that he does this while honoring the guidelines of the federal government.
Even with the restrictions of speaking about religion, Christian leaders are encouraging people to a higher integration of faith within the workplace. Reverend Billy Graham said, "I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through the believers in the workplace." Graham's son, Franklin, said, "God has begun an evangelism movement in the workplace that has the potential to transform our society as we know it."