Can I Be Forced To Attend Church?


I work as a Resident Manager in an MRDD home for sexual offenders through our county offices. Our duties require us to take care of the needs of clients according to what their behavior support plan says. Just today we were informed that if our client’s case manager and counselor feel that his religion is a good way to help detour some of his inappropriate behaviors, and we as his providers must take him to church and attend with him. We strongly disagree with this. None of us attend church nor do we have the desire to attend. We are spiritual, but don’t agree with the structural environment that most religions place on people. Do we have the right to say, “no, we won’t take him and attend?”


Resident Manager


Dear Resident Manager:

This is an especially difficult question for you. Ordinarily, assigning an employee to attend church would be out of bounds. It’s akin to forcing a school child from a family that doesn’t attend church to pray. What are the policies of MRDD homes? Surely there is a handbook with job descriptions. Is there a statement regarding discrimination with respect to race, religion, sex, national origin, age, physical disability? Usually, no employee can be forced to practice what is against her/his religion.

You say that you and your co-workers don’t attend church and “don’t agree with the structural environment that most religions place on people.” That should be sufficient reason to request an exemption from the counselor’s plan for you , who choose not to attend, to attend church with the client. Have you discussed this with the counselor or the appropriate manager over your facility?

Also there may be good reasons for your opinion in light of some clergy’s sexual misconduct that has come to light and because the evidence is problematic that religious teachings deter sexual misconduct. I imagine that it would depend on the values and teachings of particular clergy on whether attendance at that church would address such a client’s problem, and even more importantly it would depend on the client’s attitude toward attendance in a particular church. If these are reasons for your reluctance to follow the client’s counselor’s plan, might you confer with him/her about why you think this prescription is not good?

Do you have a history of being consulted about what counselors’ prescribe? It seems to me that your input as a resident manager, who is close to clients day to day, should and would be sought. Are you open to the possibility that church attendance might help the client, especially if the client wants to attend? It might be that attending a church of the client’s choice will help him/her learn the behaviors of appropriate social interaction.

Do you know if the client wants to attend church? If so and if the client’s counselor proscribes such, even though you do not want to attend with the client, it would seem that you have little room to say, “No.”

Is it a policy that you or one of your workers must be in the presence of the client at all times? Might there be a compromise position? Have you considered following the case worker’s prescription by taking the client to the door of the church and placing him in the hands of a representative of that church and picking him up immediately after the church service is over? Most churches welcome anyone who will come. In this case of drop off-pick up, you would have to get the counselor’s approval of such a plan and probably also meet with the clergy or a deacon of the church to enlist his/her/their cooperation. Probably what such a commitment would entail would need to be spelled out in a written agreement and signed off on by an official of the church as well as by the counselor–whatever is specified by your agency. Do you know if such would be required?

Do these many questions prompt some of your own thoughts about what you will do? Possibly there is a creative solution that can satisfy both the counselor and you? Working collaboratively is preferred over being at odds in roles such as yours; is it not? Sometimes differences of viewpoints can generate stronger working relationships, rather than weaken them. Approaching this conflict with that attitude, hopefully will make that so.

Our signature WEGO is a symbol of working together with hands, head, and heart. Will you let us know what you do and how it works out? Sometimes I copy my advice to another of our workplace doctors, and consequently, if one of them thinks her/his thought will help, you will get a second opinion that supports or modifies what I have advised. I’m doing so with this. I commend you for taking your work seriously and hope that you can also find ways to be lighthearted about it all.

Bill Gorden In thinking about this are you WEGO minded? Second Opinion You will likely find the answer to your questions in your contractual agreements with Social Services or whatever group pays for the work of your residence. What is your contractual obligation as a MRDD home? Are you required to take clients to doctor’s offices, therapy, training, etc.? Likely you do so whether or not you agree with the activities of the place where you’re taking them. I believe your contracts likely say that you are to transport and provide care during various treatment phases as well as for other things such as haircuts, shopping, etc. Thus, I believe you will be required to take this client to church if he wants to go. (And I’m assuming he has indicated he would like to go, has discussed religious matters or has indicated in some other way that he is interested and that is why his counselor’s think it might have value.)

What is the care requirement for this client? Is he physically disabled, requiring close care? Is he mentally retarded or developmentally disabled or sexually predatory to the point that he might do something inappropriate if an authority figure from the home is not present? If that’s the case, you couldn’t allow someone else to be in charge of him, no matter how willing they were. If, on the other hand, the client is often out of immediate presence of counselors, it would not be unreasonable to say that you will make arrangements with someone to be with him. But if so, that should be handled clearly as to what is expected. The person taking care can’t go sing in the choir or let the client leave the sanctuary to go to the bathroom alone or anything else that would allow something to happen for which you would be liable. Further, that person should be aware of the sexual issues involved.

Think liability as you think through this. Picture what the headlines would say if you are not in control or in charge when you should have been–and left the client with someone who was not aware of how to deal with any issues that arose. Or what if someone did something to harm the client because you weren’t there to help? The key to that is the contractual care and oversight you are required to give this specific client or all clients.

Is there any employee of the residence who would like to go to church? What about the parents or other family members of this client? Do you have volunteers that might want to help? What about in another MRDD home? Often those who attend church are happy to share their enjoyment of the services and would consider it part of their faith activities rather than a job. You don’t mention the size of your town, the church involved or other details, so that might make a difference.

If there is a specific church involved, perhaps you could find out if that church video tapes their services–many do nowadays. Then, the client could watch the video at the residence instead of going to church itself. The experience isn’t the same, but that might be acceptable to the counselors if you explained the liability concerns. Do you have a private conference room where a pastor could come for chapel services right in the residence on a weekly basis, allowing others beside the client to have a church service? Does some other MRDD residence do that, so you could transport there instead of to a church?

But, after all of that, let’s say that there are no more options. After looking at the contracts, thinking of your liability and considering everything else, it appears that you have no choice but to go inside the church with your client. How could you handle it? You are not obligated to ensure your client a front row seat. There might even be a “crying room” where families can sit with their children and watch on a monitor or from behind an enclosed area. At the least you could sit at the back. Then, simply bring a paperback to read to distract you without distracting others. Or, bring a notepad and make lists of things you need to do. Figure your budget. Plan a vacation. Just don’t be disruptive about it out of courtesy to others–including your client.

Explain to him that you will be listening but also will be reading something else, so he should simply concentrate on what the pastor is saying, the singing and so forth. Consider an audio device with small earphones and listen to music or a book on tape. I know of someone who uses earplugs because he doesn’t like the loud clapping and singing at the church he attends with his wife. He takes them out for the pastor’s sermons and puts them in for the singing! Apparently you might want to reverse that!

Think of it this way: You are an adult who, unlike a child, has a thought process that allows you to decide what you want to listen to and agree with. You likely hear TV shows you don’t like either, but you learn to shut them out. You hear music you find obnoxious, but you shut it out and keep working. If your MRDD home is like most, there is a continual background of sound and workers learn to work around it. That might be required in this case as well. It’s only about one and half hours on a Sunday, so perhaps that perspective will help also.

So, those are my thoughts, added to Dr. Gorden’s. Look at your contract. That may tell you whether you can say yes or no to the therapy suggested by the counselor. Perhaps you could discuss it with the counselor and explain your concerns in a problem-solving way. Remember though, the issue isn’t whether or not you think the therapy is valuable, but whether you want to participate in the therapy at the same time as the client!

I hope this helps your thinking about the matter. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.