Religion and law can—and do—mix for attorneys who strongly observe their faiths.
"Spirituality is not something one is adding to the practice of law. The practice of law by its nature is a spiritual calling if we understand it correctly. That doesn't mean we're all pursuing it that way, but based on the role law plays in society, these are spiritual callings and we need to understand that." –David Hall
An Orthodox Jew leaves early on Friday afternoon to make it to synagogue before the Sabbath. A Muslim closes her office door to engage in afternoon prayers. An evangelical Christian visits his church every Sunday rather than his office.
According to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers with more than 15 employees—including state and local governments, labor organizations, and employment agencies—must make accommodations to their employees for these and other religious needs. It is the law of the land and in law firms and legal departments nationwide: Observant attorneys of any and every faith are allowed the freedom to practice their religions at work within certain parameters.
Unfortunately, some religious employees have found that faith and work do not always mix. In fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 2,340 charges of religious discrimination and resolved 2,352 charges (some carried over from previous years), recovering $6.1 million in monetary benefits for "charging parties and other aggrieved individuals (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation)."1 This is down from 2004, during which the EEOC received 2,466 charges of religious discrimination.2
But many religious attorneys are able to balance the practice of their faith with the practice of law in a comfortable environment. How do they do so? What laws protect them, and how do their firms respond to their needs? And in this time of increased religious awareness and discussion, what role does religion and spirituality have in the intellectual halls of law firms?
"One of the unfortunate aspects of the legal culture is the notion one must separate out one's religious or spiritual foundation from the work you do," says David Hall, law professor at Northeastern University and author of The Spiritual Revitalization of the Legal Profession:A Search for Sacred Rivers (December 2005, Edwin Mellon Press). "The legal culture is very analytical. It's a profession that highly emphasizes and privileges the mind and our intellectual ability to solve problems. The Constitutional separation of church and state articulates there's this wall that should remain. I certainly see that principle as having tremendous value, but we've allowed it to extend into our personal lives to a greater extent than we should."
At its core, the law is about social justice and righteousness, which are principles of most major religions, Hall explains. "Spirituality is not something one is adding to the practice of law. The practice of law by its nature is a spiritual calling if we understand it correctly," he says. "That doesn't mean we're all pursuing it that way, but based on the role law plays in society, these are spiritual callings and we need to understand that."
From Law to the Ministry
That is what drew Luther Zeigler to both religion and law. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Zeigler attended the Divinity School of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and earned a master's degree from Stanford University in religious studies. But feeling pressure to support a family, he decided to become a lawyer, graduating from Stanford Law School in 1985. "I had a wonderful time," he says about school, and joined Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington, DC after graduation. For 21 years, Zeigler practiced appellate litigation in areas such as securities and product liability, including at the trial level.
But as an observant Episcopalian, his spiritual studies gnawed at him. In 2003, Zeigler enrolled at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria to become an Episcopalian priest.
During his three years in seminary, Zeigler balanced a full course load with a law practice. He says the firm was more than accommodating: He attended classes on certain days and worked on others, depending on the semester. "The partners said, 'Let's try to figure out a way you can do what you want to do while at the same time staying with the firm and fulfilling our needs here,' " he says. "I really couldn't have asked for more flexibility. I'd sit down periodically and map out what my schedule was going to be and we'd work it out."
The firm also allowed Zeigler, who has been a partner since 1993 and now is senior counsel, to transition his paying clients to other lawyers and focus more on public service and firm-related business. This is more compatible with his emerging identity as a pastor, he says. The partners encourage his work with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and appointed him chair of the law firm's diversity committee, where he has spent the past two years creating a strategic plan. He may not have specific prayer or other religious requirements, but, Zeigler says, "When I decided to move away from billable work to more service-oriented work, the firm willingly accommodated that. I proposed ways I might be of value to the firm and lead the firm in a new direction, and the firm consistently embraced that."
The transitions between seminary school—more contemplative and focused on emotion and spirituality—and law life—competitive and task-oriented—were "a bit of a wild roller coaster," Zeigler chuckles. But doing both has helped him become better at both, he explains. "Frequently in the legal profession, we don't appreciate enough the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of our colleagues and clients," he says. "By making this transition, it helped me in both communities—as a seminarian, to make sure [religious life] didn't become too isolated and removed from the real world and in the law firm environment, to be more sensitive to the human side of things."
In September, Zeigler became a chaplain at the Washington Episcopal School in Bethesda, Md. He says he sees law and the ministry as involving some similar skill sets: intelligence, public speaking ability, counseling, teamwork, conflict resolution, and a passion for social justice. Like Hall, he sees the higher purpose of both: "Serving people, serving justice, bringing people together and helping them."
Firms Respecting Faith
When it comes to religion in the workplace, there is an inherent tension between freedom to practice religion and free from religion, and when religious practice becomes harassment, an employer can regulate it, says Dean Schaner, an employment attorney who represents employers in religious discrimination and other employment cases in the Houston office of Haynes and Boone, L.L.P. "The standard is, 'Is the conduct so severe or pervasive that it would create an objectively hostile work environment?' " he says, adding that the language is similar to that of sexual or racial harassment cases.
The number of religious harassment cases increased in the mid-1990s, he says, and "skyrocketed" after September 11, as anti-Muslim sentiment became pervasive. Schaner says cut-and-dry harassment often includes derogatory epithets, but it can also include an employee of one religion proselytizing to another employee, which is more nuanced. "There, you've got freedom of religion, but the person also has to realize that the workplace is not the church," he says. The employer can ask the proselytizing employee to stop or suffer discipline, but the employee then could claim religious discrimination, Schaner points out. "The duty to accommodate is minimal because [the government] does not want to require employers to accommodate too much because then it poses First Amendment problems."
According to Schaner, if accommodating one employee's religion treats other workers unfairly, the employer does not need to make adjustments for the religious employee. He had a case in which an employee's religious beliefs prevented him from continuing to work on a job that required him to work rotating shifts. "No matter what scheduling software we used, it treated everyone else unfairly because his coworkers had to cover the night or midnight shift he did not prefer to work," says Schaner. A jury found for that employee, but one week later, the judge threw out the verdicts as a matter of law.
Law firms, like many businesses, have procedures in place to prevent religious harassment and discrimination, he says. A common issue in many companies is Bible study or prayer groups. Should a firm allow groups to meet in the office? As indicated by Schaner, law firms and companies that offers these meetings must make sure employees do not perceive that there could be repercussions if they do not attend. "You don't have to ban it; they usually can meet in a room where there is no propensity for people to feel that they are outcasts if they don't attend," he says.
Every Friday at noon at the Chicago office of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP, Neville Reid, a born-again, evangelical Christian and practicing attorney, attends a Bible study of several community business people, including lawyers, bankers, and secretaries. The group did not originate at the firm, but about three years ago, it lost its space and Reid, who had been attending, asked the firm if they would offer space. They agreed. "I was pleased," he says, adding that when he told people at his church that the firm hosted the group, they were surprised. "People didn't know that law firms could be potentially embracing of the issue. But that's one of the ways my faith has been respected."
At Arnold & Porter in Washington, DC, there are a few informal religious groups, including one Christian and one Judaic studies group, says William Cook, a partner who chairs the firm's diversity committee. The firm, which has won several diversity awards from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and other organizations, takes pride in its religious accommodation, Cook explains. For example, the firm keeps a yearly calendar of various religious holidays, and tries not to schedule firm events on those dates. It also takes into consideration dietary needs of various religions when planning menus for events, and accommodates different Sabbath and religious holiday observances when considering work assignments, Cook adds.
"A person shouldn't feel repressed at work because of their religion or what kind of prayers they have to do or dietary requirements they answer to," he says. "We want the firm to be sensitive to their needs in that regard." The biggest compliment to the firm, Cook says, is that "no one points a finger" and labels any employees based on their religion. "Those things are not remarked upon, and I believe that shows how comfortable people are with their religions here. I hope religious attorneys and staff don't feel like they stand out in a way that attracts attention to them or that makes them uncomfortable."
Layli Miller-Muro was an associate at Arnold & Porter from 1997 to 2001 before founding the Tahirih Justice Center, which offers assistance to women and girls facing gender-based violence. A third-generation American Bahá'í, Miller-Muro recalls feeling comfortable with her unique religion at the firm, requesting and being allowed time off for Bahá'í, holidays. She also recalls working with several Orthodox Jews who, with the firm's blessing, had small refrigerators and/or microwaves in their offices due to their kosher needs.
She recognizes that religious observance can be a balancing act in law, especially in a religion few understand. "Being a minority religion can be tricky-the first response [to Bahá'í,] is often 'B' what?' " says Miller-Muro, who worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, Board of Immigration Appeals before joining the firm. "In different environments, I've felt more or less safe, but Arnold & Porter was a great environment."
The firm also allowed its lawyers to refuse to work on cases with which they morally disagreed. Therefore, although Arnold & Porter represented a tobacco company, Miller-Muro did not work on that client; her work was in international litigation. The firm also had a policy allowing 15 percent of an attorney's workload to be pro bono, which melded well with her Bahá'í, faith, she says. "It seemed to be a place that lived its values," she says about the firm. "They had a reputation for being very professional and principled."
While at the Justice Department, the law firm and now, as head of Tahirih- which is run on Bahá'í, principles—Miller-Muro says she has learned how crucial it is to keep the faith while practicing law. "The key is to not confuse the law with justice and remember that the law should aspire to be just," she says. "There are some laws that have nothing to do with justice, but have more to do with protecting a property-owning class of people, or might have been lobbied for and have nothing to do with justice. So it's the job of lawyers to step back. You may lose money saying, 'I don't want to take this case' or 'I don't think this position is just.' Lawyers choose their professional fields based on that, too. But if we're all concerned about justice, we will have more just and fair laws."
Different Kind of Law
Mark Harris, senior counsel at Proskauer Rose in New York, found justice and fairness in a different form of law when he earned a bachelor's degree in Talmudic Law in 2005 from Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah in New York. His legal career had included clerking for two Supreme Court justices and a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, as well as five years as an assistant U.S. attorney. At Harvard, Harris majored in philosophy and decided to pursue law as a career, graduating from Harvard Law School in 1992.
About 10 years before deciding to attend the Yeshiva, Harris began the process of becoming more observant in his religious practice. "Religion had always been something I was interested in but didn't know that much about," he says, adding that he began taking classes while living in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. "I felt I was learning certain things I'd always known in my heart but hadn't expressed in my mind."
Harris decided he wanted to learn more about his rich heritage and the laws that govern it. "I had not grown up with an in-depth understanding of the Talmud, which I thought was necessary now for the life I wanted to live," he says. "I thought, 'This is my chance. I want to be able to jump into it and draw from it.' "
While serving as assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1999, Harris asked for a sabbatical to study in Israel. "They were very generous to let me take that time off," he recalls. Then, at the end of 2002, he decided to pursue his degree at the Yeshiva. "I was ready to move on," Harris says. "It made sense to begin this educational project during a break between jobs."
Like Zeigler, who went to seminary school, Harris says the transition from full-time lawyer to student was a challenge. But, he adds, the experience restored his connection to his faith and developed him spiritually. "These two things [law and religion] operated in different spheres, but I viewed them as making me a complete person," he says, adding that he always intended to go back to law. He joined Proskauer Rose's litigation department in March 2006. Harris takes off for Jewish holidays, and leaves early on Friday and does not work Saturday, due to the Sabbath.
The firm is, of course, accommodating, he says. "We're in New York—I'm certainly not the only person who falls into this category at this firm or any firm," he chuckles. "Most law firms understand that people have religious obligations. Still, I feel lucky to have found a firm that goes out of its way to honor and care about the personal needs of the people who work there."
"It does mean I work harder during the other days," he adds. "Of course, you have to get your work done, and you have to be aware that not working on Saturday may put pressure on other people. But you do what you can to take care of those problems, such as covering for colleagues when they take vacations."
The employers, too, share responsibility for being respectful of their religiously observant attorneys, Harris says. "An organization that makes efforts to make sure people are able to do the things that are important to them is an organization that will reap the loyalty of its employees."
Highly Ethical People
The vast majority of Americans practice some type of religious faith, says Hall of Northeastern. "For lawyers, the challenge is to bring that faith to the work that one is doing, not by imposing it on those you serve but by living out the principles of that faith," he says. "It's one thing for me to go to church on Sunday, but the real challenge is how do I live out those things each day and how do I care for my clients and my students at a level that would make a difference in their lives?"
He adds, "We have to view the practice of law as the laboratory in which we manifest the things we have learned in our church or synagogue or temple. Unfortunately, lawyers of faith historically have seen the law as a place where I have to make sure my faith doesn't get contaminated by this other world." Instead, Hall challenges religious attorneys to see their callings as mutual: "I'm not engaging in something that is counter to my religious orientation," he says. "I'm engaging in something consistent with it."
Reid agrees that lawyers should be holistic and therefore practice law in a manner consistent with their religious faith. "I understand that law firms are not houses of worship. At the same time, religion ought to make a person better," he says. "Somebody who is Jewish or Hindu or Muslim or Christian, my hope would be that by adhering to the principles of their faith, they'd be good people to have around. They'd be good, effective lawyers and highly ethical people. From a secular perspective, it would only make for positive and happy workers if they don't feel they are forced to park their faith at the door."
Melanie Lasoff Levs is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Ga.
- See EEOC religious discrimination information at http://www.eeoc.gov/types/religion.html.
- See EEOC religion-based charges at http://www.eeoc.gov/stats/religion.html.
From the November/December 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®