The American Civil Liberties Union says a state-run agency in Kansas could face legal liability after one of its employees used his work email to tell employees about the real meaning of Christmas: "to extol King Jesus."
Jared Bowes, a media specialist working for the Kansas Corporation Commission, reportedly used his state-issued email to send a message to coworkers on New Year's Eve saying he thought the reason for the Christmas season was to "extol King Jesus," adding "Because that's what Christmas is all about. Christ. The Risen Savior. Born into this world to lay down his life as a ransom for man's sin."
Bowes reportedly sent the agency-wide email after an opinion piece he had written for the KCC's December newsletter The Pipeline had been edited to remove all references to Jesus and Christianity. Bowes' opinion piece, found in the "Editor's Note" section, originally reflected on the importance of eschewing the commercialism of Christmas for the holiday's true meaning, which he said was the birth of Jesus. Bowes' last sentence that referenced Jesus had reportedly been edited out of the opinion piece without his knowledge, and he later sent an email to his coworkers clarifying the intent of his piece.
The ACLU told The Topeka-Capital Journal, the first media outlet to break the story, that the KCC could face legal liability, as Bowes used a state-issued email to discuss the opinion piece with employees. The KCC is the public utilities commission for the state run by three commissioners assigned by the governor.
"Certainly individual employees of the government have the free exercise right to have their own beliefs, adhere to them and do things like have a Bible on their desk or a cross or a Star of David or wear a yarmulke, or whatever you want," Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Kansas, told the local media outlet.
"But when you circulate this kind of a statement, it's basically pushing your religion in an official way by using the state email system, and that's the problem."
In a separate article by The Topeka-Capital Journal, Bowes' parents sought to defend their son's actions, saying the email was sent technically after work hours on Dec. 31. The couple added in an email to the local newspaper that if their son's superiors at KCC had simply checked with him after editing his opinion piece in The Pipeline, Bowes would have simply taken his signature off the piece once he learned it would not reference Christianity or Christ. Instead, Bowes was reportedly not contacted about the change and his edited opinion piece ran with his signature still intact.
"Jared believed the edited insert really trivialized what he had written," John and Gina Bowes wrote to the local newspaper in an email. "No problem if you remove his name and not set him up as the author. Which is EXACTLY WHY (as The Topeka-Capital Journal well knows) our son provided clarification in the aftermath of the newsletter." The couple went on to state that the real moral issue at the core of this controversy is that Bowes' signature was falsified for something he did not entirely write.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also released a statement saying it applauded the KCC for curbing Bowes' proselytizing in the commission's newsletter. "Bowes obviously feels strongly about this faith, which is his right. But that does not give him the right to use government channels, such as an employee newsletter, to engage in proselytism," the group said in a statement on its website.
"Government agencies [and private employers] must be careful about unwanted proselytism in the workplace. Failure to curb it can spark a federal case – literally," the group added.
The issue of expressing one's faith at their job has long been debated in the American workplace. Just last month, bus drivers for the Houston Independent School District were disciplined by their superiors after they used a back channel on the district's radio system to hold a collective prayer for a coworker, who had recently lost her daughter after she was struck by a vehicle while walking home from school.
Although the district argued it was disciplining the drivers because it was against school policy to use the radio channels for issues unrelated to work, some of the bus drivers who were suspended argued that the dire and tragic circumstances called for a special solution. "This was the only thing we could do to support one another," one driver, Debra McDonald, said following the punishment. "By praying to God."
In a case dating back to 2012, Captain Jon Sprague, a firefighter in Spokane Valley, Wash., for the past 17 years, was fired after using his work email to send faith-based content to fellow firefighters who were a part of a Christian fellowship group.
Sprague argued that there was no inappropriate content in the emails and he used the work email system merely because it was the easiest form of communication between him and his colleagues. His superior, Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson, argued, however, that Sprague had been warned several times to stop using his tax-payer-funded email account for religious messages. "Never had been disciplined in the past. Everything seems to revolve around just those emails and the Christian content," Sprague said in defense.