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Employers Must Allow Some Religious Expression at Work

I’m not a football fan, but recent events in the NFL have grabbed even my attention. The latest event took place during the September 29 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. Chiefs’ safety Husain Abdullah intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. When he dropped to his knees and lowered his head to the ground in prayer, a referee threw a flag and said it was unsportsmanlike behavior. Perhaps the referee did not know that Abdullah was engaging in an act of religious expression, which is allowed in the NFL and in just about every workplace in America.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which applies to employers with 15 or more employees) protects all aspects of religious observance and practice, which includes (among other things) prayer, proselytizing, and other forms of religious expression if these actions do not present an undue hardship for the employer. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (which applies to employers with 5 or more employees) provides the same protection.

For example, an employee who needs a quiet place to pray during lunch breaks and requests an available conference room to do so would probably not present an undue hardship. An employee who requests that an assembly line be shut down multiple times a day in order to pray probably would present an undue hardship.

Proselytizing may include engaging in one-on-one discussions about religious beliefs, distributing literature, or using a particular religious phrase (such as “God bless you”). According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers must allow employees to engage in these types of activities unless doing so adversely affects co-workers, customers, or business operations.

For example, employees who spend an excessive amount of time talking about their religious beliefs may be told to limit that time (employees who spend too much time talking about any topic may be told the same thing). Employees who make certain co-workers uncomfortable with their religious talk may be told to stop talking to those co-workers about religion. Employees who express religious beliefs that could be perceived as harassing (for example, telling homosexual co-workers that they are sinners) may be told to cease and desist. And, employees who talk to customers about their religious beliefs may be told to stop if it disrupts business or if the customers would reasonably believe that the employee’s message is on behalf of the employer.

NFL spokesman Michael Signora told the Associated Press that Abdullah should not have been penalized for his religious expression. Likewise, employers should not discipline their employees for their religious expression unless it unreasonably interferes with getting the work done.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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