Our Conscience vs. Our Jobs

City managers who are lucky enough to have long careers share an understanding that they are hired to carry out the will of the elected officials who appoint them. I have seen a number of colleagues lose sight of that principle and, consequently, lose their jobs in unpleasant ways. I can think of only two occasions in my career where I’ve had to ask myself if I was willing to do what a council was asking of me. In both cases, I understood that if I was unwilling to follow the council’s direction, I would need to resign.

Public employees, whether elected or appointed, serve others within boundaries established by law and policy. We do not surrender our moral judgment when we become public employees, but we do give up the right to exercise that judgment by using our position to impose our own beliefs on others. Many people know that my faith proscribes the use of alcohol, coffee, and tea. I observe that tenet of my faith in my personal life, recognizing that I have no right to tell others they should do likewise. If my conscience dictated that I work in a place where no coffee is allowed, my remedy is to go find that place.

I strongly believe in accommodating religious beliefs whenever possible, but I also believe religious accommodation for one should not come at the expense of another. My beliefs about coffee, marriage, marijuana, or alcohol are essentially irrelevant in the conduct of my job. If my conscience can’t tolerate the decisions made by the public through the electoral process, my conscience and I need to work someplace else. Allowing individuals to decide public policy based on their personal convictions is dictatorship, not democracy.

All of us can think of times when we disagreed with a law or policy. I have campaigned vigorously to change various examples of both at different times in my life. We are completely free to advocate for or against candidates, legislation, or policies as long as we do not use public resources to make our case. We can attack issues that offend our conscience or our judgment without compromising our responsibilities as a public employee.

Several years ago, an Australian and an English friend of mine took advantage of a trip to Baghdad to purchase alcohol for their own consumption and for some Polish friends with similar tastes. I recall sitting in an SUV loaded with cases of liquor, hoping we would not be stopped at one of the many roadblocks on the road to the holy city of Kerbala, where we lived. There wasn’t really any secular law in Iraq at the time, but my friends were clearly violating local religious standards. The penalty for that transgression could be death. Our Iraqi employees, who were generally among the most helpful and gracious people anywhere, told us they could not unload the liquor from the vehicle because it would violate tenets of their faith. I took some perverse pleasure in watching my friends lug their cases upstairs while my fellow teetotalers and I watched. More than once, my Iraqi friends observed that I could be a good Muslim because I did not drink.

The experience of living and working in a place where religious law is supreme makes me appreciate the value of our secular government. While it’s true I can’t stop others from doing things like drinking coffee or alcohol (not that I want to), it’s equally true that I can’t be forced to embrace the beliefs of others acting as individuals.