The Christian Version of Holy Ash


Feb 23, USA (SUN) — Whether Christian ash or Hindu vibhuti or tilak, are religious signs permitted in the workplace?

John Spink, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer, often observes Ash Wednesday while shooting services for the newspaper. He usually sets aside his camera, walks to the altar and feels the sensation of a finger making the blackened image of a cross. Spink says he then returns to the office, sometimes getting quizzical looks and odd comments, such as "Excuse me, there's something on your forehead."

Many Christians will mark the start of Lent on March 1 by observing Ash Wednesday, when an ashen cross is placed on the forehead as a sign of one's sins and penance. But the day poses a dilemma at work. With office religious displays often a sensitive issue, could the ashen cross be seen as a proselytizing gesture? And if workers wipe off ashes after attending daytime services, are they somehow denying their faith?

For Spink the answers are clear. Ash Wednesday, observed by Catholics and some Protestants, is an acknowledgment of mortality -- we all return to ashes or dust -- and a call to the Lenten period of penance. Spink says he has nothing to hide, even in his newsroom. "I'm going to be a Catholic inside the workplace and outside the workplace," said Spink, 48. "Religion is a big part of the American culture, and I think people are at least educated enough to recognize what Catholics do, what Jews do and what Muslims do."

Sometimes that isn't the case. CNN founder Ted Turner famously called staff members "Jesus freaks" in 2001 when they wore ashen crosses to a meeting in Washington. He later apologized. In San Diego, a retirement home supervisor was fired in 1997 after forcibly removing an ashen cross from an employee's forehead with a dishcloth when the employee refused to remove it herself, said Kiera McCaffrey, spokeswoman for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. And in LaGrange, Ga., a police detective was fired and then reinstated in 1994 after wearing an ashen cross to work.

Legally, the issue appears to be clear. Displaying the ashen cross is a First Amendment right, no different than wearing a Jewish yarmulke at work, and it is illegal for an employer to ask that either be removed. McCaffrey of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (here) recommends that employees who encounter trouble contact her office.

As a matter of etiquette, there is no code of conduct to follow on Ash Wednesday, said Gayle Colquitt White, author of "Believers and Beliefs: A Practical Guide to Religious Etiquette for Business and Social Occasions." "Just do it and go about your business the way you always would and don't make a big deal out of it," she said. "And don't think if someone chooses to wipe (the cross) off because they're tired of people telling them they have a smudge on their forehead, I don't think that's a renunciation of beliefs."

For more information on Vaisnava tilaka


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