More US firms are boosting faith-based support for employees

NEW YORK — It has become standard practice for U.S. corporations to assure employees of support regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation. There’s now an intensifying push to ensure that companies are similarly supportive and inclusive when it comes to employees’ religious beliefs.

One barometer: More than 20% of the Fortune 100 have established faith-based employee resource groups, according to an AP examination and there’s a high-powered conference taking place this week in Washington aimed at expanding those ranks.

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“Corporate America is at a tipping point toward giving religion similar attention to that given the other major diversity categories,” says Brian Grim, founder and president of the Religious Freedom &Business Foundation that’s co-hosting the conference along with the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business.

A few companies have long-established faith-in-the-workplace programs, such as Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, which deploys a team of more than 90 chaplains to comfort and counsel employees at its plants and offices. That program began in 2000.

However, Grim says most companies — over the past few decades — have given religion less attention in their diversity/inclusion programs than other categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disabilities.

Grim is an associate scholar at the Religious Liberty Project at Georgetown University and a former senior researcher with the Pew Research Center. From 2015-16, he served as chair of the World Economic Forum’s global agenda council on the role of faith.

Grim’s foundation, founded in 2014, recently completed a detailed analysis ranking the Fortune 100 companies on their commitment to religious inclusion as part of those programs.

The top 10 in the rankings featured some of America’s best-known companies — Google’s parent company Alphabet, Intel, Tyson Foods, Target, Facebook, American Airlines, Apple, Dell, American Express and Goldman Sachs.

Tyson won points for its chaplaincy program; most of the others have formed either a single interfaith employee resource group or separate groups for major religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Google’s interfaith group, the Inter Belief Network, has chapters for those faiths and for Buddhists, while Intel has a group for agnostics and atheists, as well as groups for major religious faiths.

One employer, the Internal Revenue Service, has a group specifically for Christian fundamentalists.

Grim says several other high-profile companies — including Walmart, the largest U.S. employer — have recently decided to launch faith-based employee groups.

At Tyson Foods, the team of chaplains includes one Muslim, but is overwhelmingly Christian. However, the team’s director, Karen Diefendorf, says the chaplains are trained to provide empathetic pastoral care to employees and their families regardless of what faith — if any — the workers belong to.

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Diefendorf, whose career includes stints as a United Methodist minister and a U.S. Army chaplain, said there’s a key difference between pastoring and chaplaincy.

“When I pastor, I only represent my denomination, my faith tradition,” she said. ‘“As a chaplain, I can support people who come from very different backgrounds…I ask them how their beliefs are helping them cope with what’s going on.”

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