Can I Pray at Work?

The answer to the question, “Can I pray at work?” is Yes. Employers are mandated by law to make those accommodations as necessary to allow people to practice their faith or lack of faith, as long as it does not burden the business.

During the past 15 years since 9/11, there has been an extreme increase in the number of requests for investigation of workplace discrimination involving religion and national origin. Unfortunately, those two now go hand-in-hand in many cases due to some people’s discrimination and harassment of individuals of Middle Eastern descent.

In fact, many companies and corporations tired of dealing with problems in the workplace created by these issues have published Prevention of Hostile Workplace Policies. It is, in fact, the employer’s responsibility to provide employees a hostile-free workplace.

Many who want nothing more than to practice their faith face undue discrimination and harassment. Many employers have told their employees they cannot wear religious garments because it makes their customers and other employees uncomfortable. Federal courts have already shot down that claim as discriminatory and without merit. Should we make accommodations for anyone’s prejudice?

What does the law state regarding religious discrimination?

Although there have been many amendments to the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and additional acts, the Compliance Manual Section on Religious Discrimination was written specifically by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to offer as much guidance as possible for employers, employees, and others who may require it.

According to the act, it is unlawful for employers of 15 or more workers to:

  • Treat an applicant or worker differently based on religion or lack of religion.
  • Subject a worker to or allow harassment of an individual due to their perceived religion or the faith of family and friends.
  • Deny reasonable accommodation for an individual or group of employees to practice their faith, if it does not inflict more than a minimal burden on the business.
  • Retaliate against an employee that reports religious discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

The Compliance Manual provides guidance for employers regarding how to accommodate practitioners who wish to pray during work hours. This can become a delicate balancing act. Once you provide accommodations for a worker or group of workers, you must provide the same or equal accommodations for all. That includes the worker who is an atheist but requests time or accommodation for meditation or another form of practice.

Disparate treatment based on religion, faith, or lack of faith

In most cases, except religious organizations or ministerial exceptions, it is unlawful to treat anyone differently in the workplace based on religion. This also applies to those without faith.

In the case of religious organizations and ministerial exceptions, discretions and privilege can be used to hire people of the same faith in the organization or ministerial exceptions. This privilege or exception is granted to these organizations to use mainly in the hiring of persons to administer faith-based programs. A religious organization should not use that privilege to hire custodial staff, no more than a small business owned by Hispanics should only hire Hispanics to work there.

Prejudice against or bias toward applicants or workers should not affect the following:

  • Interviewing, hiring, or making tougher promotion criteria for persons of a certain faith nor give preference in these to anyone due to their religion or lack of religion.
  • Refusal of hire due to faith or lack of faith.
  • Recruitment practices or agencies may not give preference or deny recruitment to persons on the basis that their name is normally associated with a certain faith, i.e. Muhammad.
  • An employer or agency cannot deny hiring based on the need to provide religious accommodations as long as it does not provide a “minimum burden”. This is much less than the “undue hardship” stipulation for the accommodation for persons with disabilities.

Employers may not allow displays of faith for one worker while denying another worker the same. If one can display a cross, another can display a Star of David and so on.

“Minimum burden” or “undue hardship” for religious accommodation

The following circumstances may make accommodations unreasonable:

  • Safety considerations.
  • Security. Contrary to collective bargaining.
  • Violations of seniority systems.
  • ​Any practice that interferes with work or conducting business.

At times, it can be a delicate balance for the employer considering what is reasonable and what could become unreasonable if the majority of workers request religious accommodations. If you let one group use a conference room that is normally kept open for impromptu meetings or conferences with visitors and other groups decide they would like to practice their faith there as well, it may become a room for religious accommodation only. Maybe you will have to decide which is more important.

What to do if you believe you were a victim

Anyone who believes they were victimized by religious discrimination or harassment or denied reasonable accommodation should first attempt to work it out with the offending party. When an amicable agreement cannot be reached, contact the EEOC to request a Charge of Discrimination.