Religious Expression in the Public Workplace

As workplaces continue to become more diverse, religion in the workplace is becoming a significant issue.  Employees of diverse backgrounds may request accommodations to practice daily religious activities.  Employers may not discriminate based on religion, must reasonably accommodate religious beliefs and practices, and must protect other employees against the unwelcome religious behaviors of their co-workers or managers. 

The First Amendment protects the free speech rights of government employees in the workplace, subject to certain restrictions.  A municipality, in its role as employer, may regulate its employees’ speech in the workplace if the speech is (1) on a matter of public concern and (2) is outweighed by the interest of the City. 

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers must provide a reasonable accommodation for requests that are based on employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on their business operations.  Reasonable accommodations may include multiple breaks to allow an employee to pray, allowing employees to wear religious clothing and/or accessories with or over their work uniform, or allowing employees to schedule days off around their religious holidays. 

For example, some religions call for individuals to pray multiple times during the day.  If the prayer times fall during lunch or other breaks, then there should be no issue with the time of the prayer. Now, if the employee needs prayer time during work hours, then the employee and supervisor should discuss the times for the breaks and any reasonable accommodations. The accommodation will depend on, among other things, the work being performed and the flexibility of the work schedule. An accommodation may include adjusting the break times to fit the prayer schedule or allowing the employee to make up the time at the end of the workday.

Municipalities should have a well-publicized and consistently applied anti-harassment policy that (1) covers religious harassment (2) clearly explains what is prohibited (3) describes procedures for bringing the harassment to management’s attention; and (4) contains an assurance that complainants will be protected against retaliation.
Employees who are the recipients of unwelcome religious conduct should inform the individual engaging in the conduct to stop.  If the conduct does not stop, employees should report it to their supervisor or other appropriate municipal official in accordance with the procedures in the anti-harassment policy.  

Offended employees who do not wish to personally confront an individual should report the conduct to their supervisor or other appropriate municipal official in accordance with the anti-harassment policy.  If harassment is perpetrated by a non-employee (i.e. citizen, contractor, volunteer) the supervisor or other municipal official should initiate a meeting with the non-employee regarding the harassment and demand that it cease.

To prevent conflicts from escalating to the level of a lawsuit, supervisors and/or municipal officials should immediately intervene when they become aware of objectively abusive or insulting conduct, even absent a complaint.


Religious Expression in the Workplace was written by Suzanne D. Paulson, OMAG Associate Counsel. You may contact the author at The information in this bulletin in intended solely for general informational purposes and should not be construed as or used as a substitute for legal advice or legal opinions with respect to specific situations, since such advice requires an evaluation of precise factual circumstances by an attorney. OMAG does not represent or endorse any group, site or product that may be mentioned in this article.
                                                                                                                                                            February 2015