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An Invitation to Prayer: Can Religious Gatherings at Work Cross the Line?

A group of people holding hands in a circle.

​An employee sends an e-mail to his entire department announcing that he's going to start praying for the workplace each morning and inviting colleagues to join him in his office to pray to Jesus. He also asks co-workers to send him a list of personal concerns they'd like him to pray about.

Should you allow this?

The issue came up this week during a Society for Human Resource Management SHRM Connect online discussion.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "gives people the right to have their religious beliefs and practices accommodated in the workplace, within reasonable limits," said Brian Grim, president of the Maryland-based Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, which advises business leaders on issues concerning religious freedom.

"People have a right to express their faith in the workplace—as long as they don't harass others or lead people to mistake their private expressions of faith for the employer's views," Grim said.

For example, he said, employees can hang a religious picture or keep religious items at their work stations, wear religious clothing or jewelry, spend their break time in personal devotions such as reading the Bible, start a voluntary prayer group, or talk to co-workers about their beliefs.

Keeping It About Business

If, however, a company has a written policy that limits the use of company e-mail accounts to company business, the employee's supervisor can ask that e-mail not be used to invite co-workers to religious gatherings, wrote Chris Altizer on SHRM Connect.

"In that case, it's not about faith or religion or prayer, but about nonbusiness use of any kind," wrote Altizer, owner of Altizer Performance Partners LLC, a management consulting firm based in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. "If you have an unwritten rule that is generally followed, you can do the same thing. It's very possible to express appreciation for the sentiment [of a prayer group] without condoning it."

Employers may also want to discourage nonbusiness activities—including prayer gatherings—during business hours.

"Companies can forbid private, nonwork meetings and gatherings on work premises," Grim said. However, if they allow some nonwork meetings, then they would be liable for religious discrimination if they forbade only religion-related meetings.

"Nevertheless, any meeting that leads to or involves harassment or exclusion of others would not be accommodated. For instance, a women's empowerment meeting shouldn't forbid men from joining. Likewise, a prayer meeting shouldn't turn anyone away due to their beliefs—religious or otherwise." 

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

Avoid 'Legal Hot Water'

If, however, workers often use company e-mail to communicate about nonbusiness issues—such as announcing sales of Girl Scout cookies—then an employer needs to allow workers to use e-mail to announce a prayer gathering.

"If a company allows employees to use company e-mail for other personal initiatives, like announcing a car wash or a gay pride march or a spontaneous happy hour, they should allow other personal requests," Grim said. "To single out religion as the only taboo topic could get the company into legal hot water."  

If a supervisor were to send out such an invitation to subordinates, that opens up a whole different can of worms, said Robin Shea, a partner with North Carolina-based Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP.

"Employees may see this as some form of pressure to join the supervisor's group, or to believe in Christianity, or in God," Shea said. "Those who do not share those beliefs may feel that their different, or lack of, belief could have an adverse effect on their chances for promotion, job assignment, etc. If the employer was ever sued for religious discrimination—which can include claims by nonreligious people—then this e-mail, coming from a member of management, would be Exhibit A."

Kent Johnson recently retired from his job as senior legal counsel for Texas Instruments, where he started diversity groups for employees, including those for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Today, he runs a religious diversity consultancy in Houston. He said in an interview that any communication about a prayer gathering, especially from a supervisor, should state explicitly that it's not an official company activity and that participation is entirely voluntary.

Johnson also replied to the SHRM Connect discussion, noting that it would be counterproductive if the company were perceived as prohibiting gathered prayer among and for co-workers. 

"My experience in a large multinational company is that the appropriate offer of an option to gather for prayer for the company and the department can foster huge amounts of good will toward people of all faiths, and toward those who reject faith altogether. If a company's reaction to communications like this were perceived as a gag order, serious negative consequences could ensue."

When Religious Discussions Cross the Line

Finally, it's important to ascertain to what extent an employee is discussing religious beliefs with co-workers in person, Altizer wrote.

"A knottier problem would be if he/she were sharing his/her faith in the workplace enough to be proselytizing others and creating an uncomfortable environment by doing so," he wrote. "While free speech and religious practice freedoms are protected from government interference by the First Amendment, they are not as protected from management discretion in the workplace."

Said Grim: "Certainly, if a co-worker asks another person in the company not to talk with him about their faith, then they need to stop. Continuing could be harassment." 

Similarly, if the employee persists with follow-up e-mails to people who haven't expressed interest, "then the employee should be instructed to stop those communications," Shea said. An employer "can take appropriate action on a case-by-case basis if religious e-mails could be interpreted as coercive, preachy or overly aggressive, or if the communications have possible customer relations implications," Shea said.

"The employer must balance the rights of employees to exercise their religious beliefs with the rights of other employees to exercise their different religious beliefs or to be nonbelievers."

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