Employees have the right to express their religious beliefs. The legal considerations, along with the desire by many employers to build an inclusive workplace, should convince HR leaders that it’s in their best interest to explore approving such a request.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are required to make reasonable religious accommodations unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business. Ideally, employers will have a policy to follow for dealing with requests for religious accommodations. In response to such requests, ask for more details, such as the proposed time and location, the number of employees who might participate, and others who might be affected. Some employers have met the request for accommodation by allowing employees to pray at their workstations or to use other quiet areas for group prayer. If a specific accommodation can’t be made, organizations will often offer alternatives to a request. For example, if an employee wants to lead a prayer group on Thursdays at noon but that’s a busy time for the company, the employer could suggest a later time on that day or a different day for the gathering.
If business leaders believe there’s an undue hardship, they need to show that providing an accommodation would either cause a workplace disruption or result in substantial financial costs (both direct and indirect), which would be a burden on the company. Employers can consider whether an accommodation would affect worker safety, interfere with other employees’ rights or benefits, or even lead to employment law violations. For example, if an employee asks to use a certain conference room that’s already routinely scheduled for business meetings with clients, business leaders could deny the request and cite the revenue that would be lost without the client meetings.
It’s possible, however, for employers to discourage nonbusiness activities, including prayer groups, during business hours and on company property, as long as this policy or practice is consistently applied to similar employee requests. If an employer deviates from its pattern, it could invite claims of religious discrimination.
Also, employees who start a prayer group don’t have the right to harass other employees or lead employees to believe that a company has a religious viewpoint. If an employee tries to coerce other workers to join the group, the employer should put a stop to the offending behavior. Likewise, no one should be allowed to give the impression that participating in the prayer group is required for employment or that employees will be penalized for not attending. Allowing this type of behavior could invite discrimination claims against an employer.
Yvette Lee, SHRM-SCP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.