Compliance Check: Do Employers Have to Allow Time for Prayer at Work?
The world continues to become increasingly interconnected. As a result, religious inclusion in the workplace is more critical than ever for employers to get right. With this expanding diversity in faith comes the responsibility to protect employees from discrimination, both intentional and unintentional. Read on to find out what you need to know about your employees’ rights when it comes to religious expression in the workplace.
Is it Legal for Employees Pray at Work?
Yes, employees do have the right 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 that an employee’s stated religious belief is typically not in dispute, meaning that employers should not decide if 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 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 isn’t 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
Best Practices: Accommodating Prayer and Religious Expression in the Workplace
As a general rule of thumb, employers should let all staff know that they will make efforts to provide reasonable religious accommodations to all employees. Managers should also be trained to recognize these requests from team members.
Other best practices include:
- Flexible scheduling to accommodate religious practices
- 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 garb like a yarmulke or hijab)
- Permitting prayer, proselytizing, and other forms of religious expression
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 accommodation in advance to engage in these religious expressions.
Likewise, employees should adhere to the following best practices:
- Informing their managers if their religious needs conflict with workplace rules
- Provide enough information that lets the employer know what accommodation is needed and how it applies to a religious practice, belief, or observance
- Stop proselytizing to coworkers if the communications aren’t welcome
What if an Employee’s Religious Expression Poses Undue Hardship in the Workplace?
Employers may want to determine if religious activities pose an undue hardship on the business or other employees. Under these circumstances, HR professionals should consider the potential disruption (if any) posed by the religious expression activities, including:
- Effect on the Workplace Rights of Coworkers: If a religious activity or expression disrupts the work of an employee’s colleagues or constitutes or threatens to constitute unlawful harassment. This could include demeaning coworkers of other religions or if the expression “persists even though it is clearly unwelcome.”
- Effect on Customers: Undue hardship posed by religious expression towards customers can include instances where employees are specifically proselytizing, meaning the worker in question is attempting to convert a customer to their faith tradition.
The EEOC also warns that employers must assess the undue hardship posed by a religious expression on coworkers on a case-by-case basis.
Is Group Prayer Allowed at Work?
Group prayer at work is acceptable only when it is voluntary. Title VII forbids employers from coercing employees to participate in religious activities.
Employers May Be Subject to Fines for Failure to Comply with Religious Accommodations
Employers in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act can be liable for compensatory and punitive damages and possibly even lawsuits. The sum total of noncompliance fines depends on the size of the employer and include the following maximum limits:
For more information about equal opportunity employment practices, please refer to eeoc.gov.
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