Private employers balance respecting the rights and diversity of their workers with fostering the moral principles that they support as a company. Unlike public employers, private companies are free to enact religious displays, advocate for one religion over another, and openly engage in religious practices in the workplace. However, both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protect New Jersey workers from employment discrimination based on their religion or lack thereof. These laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on religion, both in hiring and during their employment, and make it illegal to force those of faith to suppress or violate their religious beliefs as a condition of obtaining or maintaining employment.
Am I Allowed to Pray at Work?
Title VII and the NJLAD require an employer to reasonably accommodate its employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, and practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on business operations. An employee engaging in forms of non-disruptive religious expression, such as praying quietly before meals, would be generally unlikely to create an undue hardship. However, employers should ensure that an employee’s workplace prayer does not create an offensive, intimidating, abusive, or oppressive atmosphere that makes other employees feel uncomfortable because of their different religious beliefs or lack thereof; this could give rise to claims of a hostile work environment.
Employees have the right to display or wear religious symbols in the workplace, insofar as they do not create an undue hardship or danger. Employers have a right to implement a reasonable, uniformly applied policy when it comes to dress codes and decorating or personalizing employee offices and workspaces; however, they should not try to suppress religious expression in an employee’s personal workspace by requiring that they be secular in nature. Employers do not have to allow employees’ personal religious displays, religious attire, or other demonstration of religious adherence if they make an honest effort to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs and there is a bona fide reason that they cannot accommodate an employee’s request without undue hardship.
Does My Employer Have to Accommodate Employee Prayer?
New Jersey employers are not required to give employees breaks during a shift for any reason unless the employees are minors. (Workers under the age of 18 are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal or rest break after 5 continuous hours of work.) However, short breaks for prayer may constitute a reasonable accommodation under Title VII and the NJLAD. Both laws require employers to allow employees time off for sincerely held religious observances and practices as long as such accommodation is “reasonable” and does not impose an “undue hardship” upon the employer.
The employee must give the employer notice of the request; the employer is required to subsequently engage in attempts to determine if the requested accommodation is reasonable or if there is another possible accommodation that could meet the employee’s need. If an employee requests time for prayer during the workday as required by their sincerely held beliefs, for example, an employer may offer short breaks and an appropriate place to allow for prayers like an office or conference room, if that would be “reasonable” and not an “undue burden” on the employer.
Whether a requested accommodation is “reasonable” or an “undue burden” is different for each set of facts and depends on many factors, including the size of the employer, the nature of the employment, and other individual circumstances. New Jersey requires employers to make a “bona fide effort” to accommodate a reasonable request based on a sincerely held religious belief.
Can My Employer Force Me to Pray?
Although private employers are legally entitled to endorse a religion and engage in religious activities in the workplace, employees cannot be forced to participate in religious rituals, practices, or ceremonies, or be disciplined for not doing so. The EEOC advises that
[i]f an employer holds religious services or programs or includes prayer in business meetings, Title VII requires that the employer accommodate an employee who asks to be excused for religious reasons, absent a showing of undue hardship. Excusing an employee from religious services normally does not create an undue hardship because it does not cost the employer anything and does not disrupt business operations or other workers.
An employer is also required by Title VII to excuse an employee from compulsory personal or professional development training if such training conflicts with the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices. An employer can refuse to do so, however, if it would pose an undue hardship to provide an alternative training or to excuse an employee from any part of a particular training, such as “where the training provides information on how to perform the job, on how to comply with equal employment opportunity obligations, or on other workplace policies, procedures, or applicable legal requirements.”
Wrongful Termination Because of Religious Discrimination
Although most employment in New Jersey is "at will," meaning that an employer or employee may terminate the relationship at any time, without a reason or cause, an employer may not terminate a worker’s employment for an unlawful reason. Terminating an employee for requesting an accommodation to exercise sincerely held religious beliefs or refusing to engage in the interactive process with an employee who requests an accommodation may violate Title VII or the NJLAD. If you believe that you were terminated or retaliated against as a result of your religion, contact the experienced New Jersey anti-discrimination attorneys at The Mark Law Firm.
 NJ Rev. Stat. Sec. 10:5-12.