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Compliance Check: Do Employees Have a Legal Right to Pray at Work?

Compliance Check: Do Employees Have a Legal Right to Pray at Work?

Yes, employees have a right to pray at work, but there's more to it than that. 

Read on to find out what you need to know about your employees’ rights regarding religious expression in the workplace.

 

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Is It Legal for Employees to Pray at Work?  

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "refusing to accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs or practices" is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The same section says there is no basis for employers to determine whether an employee holds a religious belief for the "proper" reasons. 

However, there are exceptions—namely, if "the accommodation would impose an undue hardship (more than a minimal burden on the operation of the business)." The EEOC has also determined that religious practices may be sincerely held by an individual even if:

  • It is a newly adopted faith or belief
  • It is not consistently observed
  • It is different from the commonly followed tenets of the individual's religion
  • The employee follows some common practices in the faith tradition but not others

 

Can Employees Force Others to Do a Group Prayer?

Group prayer at work cannot be forced, but it is acceptable so long as it is voluntary. In a recent case, EOC vs. Aurora Renovations and Developments, two employees of a home service repair company in North Carolina sued their employer after they were terminated for not partaking in mandatory daily prayer meetings. 

Title VII explicitly forbids employers from coercing employees to participate in religious activities. It reminds employers how important it is for employers to understand the laws and regulations surrounding religious freedom in the workplace. 

 

How To Accommodate Religious Observance in the Workplace

Employers should accommodate religious observances by first communicating that they will make an effort to provide reasonable religious accommodations to all employees. It’s also important to ensure that managers are trained to recognize these requests from team members and address them appropriately or go to HR if there is no precedent. 

Other ways some employers can accommodate religious practices include:

  • Flexible scheduling for reasonable needs to allow employees to participate in the requirements of their faith (e.g., daily prayers) or attend religious ceremonies or special observances/holidays

  • Voluntary shift substitutions or swaps (e.g., if an employee cannot work during a religious holiday such as Yom Kippur)

  • Job reassignments when accommodations cannot be made

  • Modifications to workplace policies or practices (e.g., wearing a beard or religious garbs like a yarmulke or hijab)

  • Permitting other forms of religious expression that do not contribute to a hostile workplace (e.g., a small Buddha on someone's desk)

The EEOC points out that some employees might want to display religious icons or messages at their workstations, use a religious expression when greeting colleagues, or partake in prayer or religious study during the workday. In some of these instances, the EEOC states that employees can request an accommodation in advance to engage in religious expressions and practices. 

Workers can express their religion freely (but circumspectly) without impacting the workplace by following these best practices: 

  • Informing their managers if their religious needs conflict with workplace rules

  • Providing enough information to let the employer know what accommodation is needed and how it applies to religious practice, belief, or observance 

  • Avoiding religious or faith-directed discussions with coworkers if the communications aren't welcome   
     


 

What Accommodations Are Unreasonable to Employers?

Some accommodation requests may be unreasonable, like if they pose an undue hardship on the business or other employees. For example, if someone often requests major work days off for religious needs, and coworkers must work beyond normal hours to fill those gaps, employers can consider requests unreasonable.    

Before providing permission for accommodations, HR professionals should consider the potential disruption (if any) posed by the religious expression activities. Potential disruptions include:

  • Effects on the Workplace Rights of Coworkers: Consider if a religious activity or expression will disrupt the work of an employee’s colleagues directly or threaten the balance or stability of working relationships. For example, is someone demeaning coworkers of other religions? This could constitute as "unlawful harassment" and lead to a hostile workplace lawsuit. 

    If a colleague makes it clear further religious discussion is unwelcome, and the employee does not abate, an employer should heed their words and take measures to reduce conflict. 

  • Effects on Customers: Is an employee inviting each customer at checkout to participate in a ceremony at their church, making people uncomfortable and driving away business? HR should step in if the worker in question is attempting to convert a customer to their faith tradition to the company's detriment. HR does not have to allow this, as it is considered placing an undue hardship on an employer to make sacrifices to accommodate religious observances or beliefs. 

The EEOC also warns that employers must assess the undue hardship posed by a religious expression on coworkers on a case-by-case basis. This is a time when being an HR Party of One is to your benefit, as you have a much better understanding of the needs and limitations of the business as a whole and perhaps a closer relationship with the employee. 

For more information about equal opportunity employment practices, please refer to eeoc.gov.  

 

Additional Resources

You can also stay informed, educated, and up-to-date with EEOC regulations and other important topics by using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:

  • BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop-shop for HR industry news
  • HR Glossary—featuring the most common HR terms, acronyms, and compliance
  • HR Guides—essential pillars, covering an extensive list of comprehensive HR topics
  • BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credit
  • HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics
  • Community—the HR Party of One Community forum, a place devoted to HR professionals to ask questions, learn more, and help others

 

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