Workplace Religious Accommodations and Islamic Prayer

Posted on by Rafiq Gharbi in Church Law, Labor & Employment.

Rafiq Gharbi

Few issues are more sensitive for employers than accommodating employees’ religious practices and observances. In recent years, Muslim employees and their employers have struggled with how to handle the religious requirement to perform obligatory prayers while at work.

Muslims are required by their faith to observe five daily prayers during certain intervals. The performance of the prayer requires preparation in the form of a ritual cleansing, followed by the actual prayer which consists of a series of standing, bowing, and prostrating actions accompanied by recitation of chapters from the Quran. The five daily prayers occur at dawn, mid-day, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nighttime. With each prayer time comes a “window” of time in which that particular prayer should be performed.

Prayer times will fluctuate throughout the year as they correspond with the rising and setting of the sun. Long summer days may only see one prayer “come due” during the workday, while short winter days may have up to three “come due” during a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift.

For employers who are not familiar with the practice of the salat, or Islamic daily prayers, there are legitimate questions and concerns. How will the company keep up productivity if an employee is constantly taking prayer breaks? What if the company does not have enough employees to keep operations running while an employee prays? Just how far do I have to go to accommodate this practice? It all depends.

Reasonable Religious Accommodation and Undue Hardship

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s religious accommodation protections require that employers accommodate sincerely held religious practices so long as they do not pose an undue hardship to the employer. Title VII’s undue hardship test for religious accommodations requires a case-by-case analysis, as every request for such accommodation will have its own set of unique facts. The standard for the undue hardship analysis is that the employer must demonstrate that the accommodation poses “more than a de minimis” cost or burden.

The employer bears the burden of showing a court that if they were to accommodate prayer breaks, that the employer would suffer more than a trivial amount of harm.

The EEOC’s compliance manual provides the following instructive example:

Rashid, a janitor, tells his employer on his first day of work that he practices Islam and will need to pray at several prescribed times during the workday in order to adhere to his religious practice of praying at five specified times each day, for several minutes, with hand washing beforehand.  The employer objects because its written policy allows one fifteen-minute break in the middle of each morning and afternoon.  Rashid’s requested change in break schedule will not exceed the 30 minutes of total break time otherwise allotted, nor will it affect his ability to perform his duties or otherwise cause an undue hardship for his employer.  Thus, Rashid is entitled to accommodation.

Preventative Steps for Employers

To avoid the issues that may arise when accommodating prayer breaks (and avoid costly litigation), there are a few practical tips to keep in mind.

Neutrality

If an employer’s policy regarding breaks is content-neutral, well-documented, and applicable company-wide, an employer has a much better chance of avoiding or defending a claim of discrimination. Where a company only allows breaks at certain times, there should be a narrative that accompanies the policy. Linking limits on breaks and time away from workstations to maintaining productivity is a legitimate business interest. Policies that are not content-neutral and negatively impact prayer breaks will garner scrutiny.

Compromise

Employers with neutral policies regarding breaks who are still encountering issues accommodating prayers may need to scale back or adjust those policies. If the policy is only an issue for one or a few individuals, agreements can be entered into between those employees and the company acknowledging exceptions to the policy, but maintaining the policy’s intent. Recent litigation has arisen out of companies’ unwillingness to adapt break policies to prayer schedules.

Understanding

Employers should understand that Muslims are obligated to perform daily prayers— it is a central pillar of Islam. By allowing liberal prayer breaks or crafting policies that carve out enough time to perform prayers, employers can alleviate the internal conflict that Muslim employees might feel. In return, employers can reap the benefits of more productive and mindful workers.

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This article provides insight into the issues faced by Muslim employees wishing to perform their daily prayers at work, and suggestions for employers faced with the fragile balancing act of determining what is good for business and what is good for its employees. Title VII’s analysis is applicable not only to Islamic prayer, but also to any number of religious practices that require accommodation from employers.  The Labor and Employment Practice Group and the Religious Law Practice Group at Ferguson, Schetelich, & Ballew, P.A. provide competent representation in cases involving discrimination, and provide legal advice to employers and religious organizations. Contact our office today for more information.