Today more workplaces are seeking to accommodate religion, and that's probably a good thing. The market, as ever, certainly can use a bit more morality. But while rising health insurance premiums and frivolous lawsuits are more frequent topics of conversation among business owners, the free exercise of religion at work can be just as explosive a topic. The number of federal discrimination claims filed against employers relating to religion has been rising, and novel court cases work their way through the system all the time. General Motors recently won a lawsuit filed by a worker who wanted to establish a Christian employee network. His request was turned down by the automaker even as it approved networks established by employees belonging to various ethnic groups, as well as gay and lesbian workers.

Though many lawsuits, like the GM case, involve a religious employee and a reluctant employer, there are also plenty of examples of disputes that center on a religious business owner running afoul of employees or perhaps customers. In Houston recently, a landscaping business that quotes Scripture on its website (Ephesians 5:25--33) refused service to a gay couple. When word got out, the business received so many angry calls that the owners issued an apology. So were they within their rights to refuse service to that customer?

If you run a company in America, you probably have no idea what is permissible and what is not when it comes to matters of religion. Such confusion ought not to be surprising. We live in a country in which the meaning of separation of church and state has never been clear, even to judges who routinely pronounce on the matter. Is it any wonder, then, that the separation of church and company is murky, too?

As a matter of law, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains two religion clauses, one preventing its establishment, the other guaranteeing its free exercise. There are no significant cases involving the Establishment Clause growing out of workplace issues, for business firms are very much in the private sector, where the ban on an established church does not apply.

A free society should advance freedom of religion in the workplace, no matter how difficult it may be to define what that means.

The trouble starts with the guarantee of free exercise. No one can tell you exactly what this religious freedom means: Some people think it protects their right to witness their faith at the coffee machine. Others believe they have the right not to have someone accost them on the factory floor describing the wonders of God. Though the bounds are not clear, groups such as the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries diligently coordinate workplace evangelization and train clergy to lead these efforts.

There are good reasons companies may want to accommodate religious concerns; faithful workers are frequently good employees, at least if they live by their religious precepts. There nonetheless exist problems facing entrepreneurs who want to embrace religion in the workplace. The biggest of these is that, in reality, there is no such thing as religion. There are, instead, religions--many of them. Once you accommodate one employee's tradition, must you accept all of the others?

The prison system has dealt with this issue. Facing an upsurge of interest in Islam among inmates and recognizing that the newly converted tend to be model prisoners, many wardens thought it would be wise to allow Muslims to pray five times a day, to furnish them with rugs, and to let them engage in ritual cleansing. Once Muslims were accommodated, however, prisons were petitioned to permit Buddhists to be vegetarian, Sikhs to wear turbans, Wiccans to wear cloaks, and so on. Companies committed to recognizing religion in the workplace can similarly expect a multitude of requests as they grow and their work forces diversify.

Setting policies that embrace religious pluralism can be particularly troubling to a boss who wants his or her business to reflect personal religious convictions, people such as those landscapers in Houston. There's the issue of how, as an employer, you should relate to your workers. Evangelicals, for example, see the act of spreading the good news to the unconverted as a real part of their religious tradition. But what if an employee does not want to be saved, at least not as the business owner understands and defines salvation? And what about customers? If there's plenty of business to be had simply by marketing yourself through a Christian business directory, for example, what's the point of making an effort to go beyond that audience?

One thinker who can help us through the thicket of workplace issues is Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, the great theorist of free enterprise described the benefits of breaking up the monopolies enjoyed by government-supported cartels. Unleash the entrepreneurial power of the market, Smith urged, and efficiency and progress would follow.

Although his writings on other subjects are not as well remembered as his economic analysis, Smith also had much to say about religion. A leader of what came to be called the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith opposed established churches for the same reason he detested mercantilism: A government monopoly over religion would stultify efforts on the part of churches to work hard to get their messages across. The best religion, according to Smith--who came from a Protestant country, not a Catholic one, and preferred voluntaristic forms of faith--would be the one capable of surviving the rigors of free competition.

If we are to honor religious as well as economic freedom, we should, in the spirit of Adam Smith, allow maximum scope for people to express their faith and engage in their religious practices in the workplace. Not to do so would deprive them of their rights in ways not all that distinct from efforts to prevent businesspeople from exploring new ways to serve markets. A free society should always advance freedom of religion, no matter how difficult it may be to define what freedom of religion is.

But once you accommodate one employee's tradition, must you accept all of the others?

At the same time, we must also recognize, as Adam Smith did, that once you create competition in religion, no one religion can be allowed to dominate all others, whether in the public square or within the four walls of a single office.

Workplaces are not public in a legal sense and, because they are not, courts will generally allow companies room to find their own ways of accommodating the rights of believers. But workplaces are public in a social sense; they are composed of groups of people, and the larger the groups grow, the more likely there will exist religious differences among them. There is an implicit bargain here for private companies to accept. Make room for diversity and tolerance, and few will object to religious expression in the workplace. Confine the right to expression only to select groups, however, or use one faith to browbeat others, and those others will rightly object. The choice is up to each company.

For those who would prefer to confine their commercial activities to the sectarian, it is worth considering not just the First Amendment, and the teachings of Adam Smith, but also the articles of one's own faith. Companies that seek to exist in an environment where religious beliefs are muted are borrowing from the tendency in American life for all groups to withdraw from the larger community in favor of the comforts of those just like themselves. This impulse can be found among all groups, but it is particularly curious among evangelicals. When they perceive the larger world as secular and hostile to their faith, they undermine their own religiously inspired injunction to bring God's good news to the unconverted. Opting for what can be awkward and difficult over what is comfortable is, in this context, not merely a business decision. It is also, in a very real sense, a test of faith.

Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and the author of numerous books, including Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press, 2006).

Although his writings on other subjects are not as well remembered as his economic analysis, Smith also had much to say about religion. A leader of what came to be called the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith opposed established churches for the same reason he detested mercantilism: A government monopoly over religion would stultify efforts on the part of churches to work hard to get their messages across. The best religion, according to Smith--who came from a Protestant country, not a Catholic one, and preferred voluntaristic forms of faith--would be the one capable of surviving the rigors of free competition.

If we are to honor religious as well as economic freedom, we should, in the spirit of Adam Smith, allow maximum scope for people to express their faith and engage in their religious practices in the workplace. Not to do so would deprive them of their rights in ways not all that distinct from efforts to prevent businesspeople from exploring new ways to serve markets. A free society should always advance freedom of religion, no matter how difficult it may be to define what freedom of religion is.

But once you accommodate one employee's tradition, must you accept all of the others?

At the same time, we must also recognize, as Adam Smith did, that once you create competition in religion, no one religion can be allowed to dominate all others, whether in the public square or within the four walls of a single office.

Workplaces are not public in a legal sense and, because they are not, courts will generally allow companies room to find their own ways of accommodating the rights of believers. But workplaces are public in a social sense; they are composed of groups of people, and the larger the groups grow, the more likely there will exist religious differences among them. There is an implicit bargain here for private companies to accept. Make room for diversity and tolerance, and few will object to religious expression in the workplace. Confine the right to expression only to select groups, however, or use one faith to browbeat others, and those others will rightly object. The choice is up to each company.

For those who would prefer to confine their commercial activities to the sectarian, it is worth considering not just the First Amendment, and the teachings of Adam Smith, but also the articles of one's own faith. Companies that seek to exist in an environment where religious beliefs are muted are borrowing from the tendency in American life for all groups to withdraw from the larger community in favor of the comforts of those just like themselves. This impulse can be found among all groups, but it is particularly curious among evangelicals. When they perceive the larger world as secular and hostile to their faith, they undermine their own religiously inspired injunction to bring God's good news to the unconverted. Opting for what can be awkward and difficult over what is comfortable is, in this context, not merely a business decision. It is also, in a very real sense, a test of faith.

Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and the author of numerous books, including Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press, 2006).