Several of my coworkers and I are Muslim, and we would like to use the company's conference room for our daily prayers. We work in cubicles, and the noise and cramped space aren't conducive to praying. Also, the cubicles are too small to allow us to pray together. Our HR representative told us that we couldn't use the conference room. She claimed that allowing us to pray there would make it seem like the company was favoring our religion, and the company cannot discriminate or play favorites when it comes to religious matters. Is this right?
Well, your HR representative is half right: It's true that discrimination or favoritism on the basis of religion is illegal. It violates Title VII, the main federal law that prohibits workplace discrimination, as well as the laws of most states. The part she got wrong is her mistaken belief that the company can't allow you to practice your religion. In fact, these laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees' religious beliefs and practices. The accommodation you requested -- use of company space or facilities for religious observances -- may be required by law.
Unlike the other characteristics protected by Title VII, such as race or national origin, religion is a belief system. Sometimes, those beliefs require employees to engage in certain practices at work, such as wearing a head covering, praying, or taking certain days off. Title VII recognizes the unique nature of religion by requiring reasonable accommodation for employee religious beliefs, as long as it wouldn't create an undue hardship for the employer.
It's clear that this is confusing to your HR representative, and she's not alone. The general rule regarding discrimination is that employers must not make decisions based on an employee's protected characteristic. However, providing a reasonable accommodation requires an employer to take an employee's religion into account at work. Again, that's because religion is both a characteristic and a set of beliefs and practices.
The accommodation you've requested seems reasonable, and it's hard to see how allowing you to use a conference room briefly during the day could create an undue hardship for your employer. If the conference room is in use for a meeting or other work function, it might be reasonable to require you to find another space for prayer that day. Generally, however, this is an accommodation that requires very little of your employer and costs nothing to provide.
You and your coworkers should return to your HR representative and explain that you are requesting a reasonable accommodation for your religious practices. Point her to the website of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (www.eeoc.gov) for more information about accommodations. You can also find information in our article, Reasonable Accommodation for Religious Beliefs.