Personnel at the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) now have to be very careful about what they talk about with their coworkers. They have recently been told that their organization no longer upholds freedom of religion or freedom of speech.
Meeting notes taken by a DES staff member show how much has changed in the six months since Arizona DES Director Tim Jeffries, known for unashamedly displaying his devout Catholic beliefs, was forced to resign. Along with being told to avoid raising their voices, being disrespectful, or kissing each other, employees are also being trained to avoid all discussion of religion and politics. Included among the list of forbidden behavior are:
- “Topic of religion is no longer allowed in class or in the office”
- “No religious quotes”
- “No religious sayings”
- “Avoid mentioning blessings”
- “No mention of politics”
Taking a 180-degree turnaround since Jeffries left, the DES now blatantly denies the First Amendment rights of its 8,000 employees. Such a radical change began taking root back when Jeffries still served as Director at DES.
During his time at DES, Jeffries proved to be a strong reformer — in fact Governor Doug Ducey’s top reformer. Following Ducey’s instruction, Jeffries rooted out corruption in his agency, reducing its workforce by two percent.
Besides being a strong reformer, Jeffries was also a devout Catholic, a “fault” which led to much controversy. Jeffries was so open about his faith and respect for the First Amendment that he displayed the state’s motto, Ditat Deus, “God enriches,” around the office and often quoted prominent religious leaders.
Some of the 475 employees who Jeffries let go decided to take revenge on him by attacking his displays of Christianity. Appealing to organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Secular Coalition for Arizona, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), and the Arizona Republic newspaper, the terminated workers targeted Jeffries for his expression of religion.
Among the complaints was the accusation of by the FFRF that Jeffries had unconstitutionally promoted his religious views before and during a trip to Lourdes, France, a popular Catholic pilgrimage destination. In June 2015, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office Civil Division Chief Counsel Paul Watkins tossed away such nonsense with this response:
Mr. Jeffries’ internal emails about his personal trip were private speech, did not bear the endorsement of the State, and did not violate the Constitution. Furthermore, if DES were to adopt a rule banning religious speech, in internal workplace emails, as you suggest, it would violate the First Amendment.
That did not silence Jeffries’ attackers, though. After much more criticism, Jeffries eventually left his position in November 2016.
The department’s recently introduced restrictions on free speech are attempts to undo the attitude of religious acceptance that Jeffries had cultivated. Silencing employees’ First Amendment rights, the DES’s new employee training is exactly the type of abridgement which, as the Attorney General’s Office correctly noted, constitutes a violation of the First Amendment — as well as a concerning national trend.
Photo credit: Jennifer Moo via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0