A place to pray

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | January 14, 2014

Within the last couple of years, we have highlighted a number of cases involving religion in the workplace and, specifically, religious accommodations, such as allowing employees to wear head scarves or other personal religious symbols. Late last year, a federal district court in Kansas was faced with the question of whether an employer properly attempted to accommodate the praying requirements of a Muslim employee. The court concluded the employer had satisfied its obligations and that the specific request of the employee would have created an undue hardship.

A-1 Careers, a temporary staffing agency, employed Abdifatah Farah from approximately June 8, 2010, through July 2, 2010, when he resigned. A-1 placed Farah at a company called Centrinex, which leased office space in a building where the main floor had a common lobby serving all tenants and visitors.

Farah practices the religion of Islam and holds the sincere belief that he is required to perform prayer rituals five times a day: morning, noon, late afternoon, dusk, and at night. Farah was able to perform all but his noontime prayers at his home or some other location. The exact time of the noontime prayer varies depending on the location of the sun and usually lasts 5-7 minutes. Farah says his prayers silently while standing, kneeling, sitting or lying on a mat approximately 4′ x 2′ in dimension.

On Fridays, Farah would combine his one-hour lunch break with his 15-minute afternoon break and attend a service at a mosque approximately 30 minutes away. Farah asked for — and received — permission to do this on Fridays from the woman who sat next to him at the office.

praying-handsWhen Farah first started at Centrinex, he asked a co-worker who supervised his work if there was some place in the building where he could say his prayers Monday through Thursday. She told him he could use the lobby of the building. From that point, Farah said his prayers in the lobby. He did not seek permission from any of his managers. Several people, including other tenants of the building as well as visitors, would walk through the lobby while Farah was praying and could see him.

In mid-to-late June, the property manager of the building contacted Centrinex and told its HR director that other tenants and their visitors objected to Farah praying in the lobby. The HR director contacted A-1, advised them of the issue, and asked that they speak with Farah. A-l contacted Farah, explained there had been complaints, and offered him several alternatives: to pray in his car, outside, or at a mosque. Farah told the manager at A-1 he could not pray in the car because the prayers required too much movement. While Farah could pray outside, he did not like it and said it was too unsanitary. Farah agreed there were several options of other locations, but claimed the drive to the mosque would make him late and he did not want that to reflect negatively upon him. Significantly, Farah did not tell the manager at A-1 that he was allowed to combine his breaks on Friday, and he did not ask for that same accommodation the other days of the week.

Soon after his conversation with A-1, Farah discussed the issue with Centrinex’s HR director and asked if there was any place in the building where he could pray. She said no, but suggested utilizing the outdoor space, his car, or an off-site location. Like the manager at A-1, Centrinex’s HR director was unaware of the Friday arrangements that had been made. Farah told the director he could not use his car because of mobility issues and could not pray outside because of sanitary concerns, but he did not respond to her off-site suggestion. Instead, he requested that he be allowed to pray in her private office. The director denied this option because she had people in and out of her office throughout the day, she regularly occupied her office, and she maintained confidential files in that location. Farah also asked if he could pray in the hallway outside her office or if he could use an office he believed was rarely used. The director rejected these ideas because his presence in the hallway would impede traffic and the office Farah mentioned was actually occupied. Again, Farah never told the director how he handled the issue on Fridays and did not ask for similar treatment during the week.

Unsatisfied with the options offered by A-1 and Centrinex, Farah went back to work and discussed the issue with two other people at Centrinex whom he considered his work supervisors. He asked them what they would do. They told him “off the record” that they would continue to pray in the lobby, which he did.

After A-1 received another complaint, the managing director visited Farah, advised him that he could not continue to pray in the lobby, and offered him the same accommodations previously suggested by Centrinex. She also issued a warning letter and advised him he could not continue to work unless he signed it. When he refused, she added language confirming his resignation, which he then signed. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Farah files a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.

The law

Similar to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees to practice sincerely held religious beliefs. The Tenth Circuit, along with other circuit courts, have interpreted that requirement to also require participation in the interactive process, whereby the employer and employee discuss and evaluate possible accommodations. Also similar to the ADA, Title VII does not require the employer to provide a specific accommodation, or even what the employee prefers. Rather, the employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation that does not create an undue hardship.

In this case the court found that the employers had attempted to engage in the interactive process and had, in fact, offered reasonable accommodations. The court went on to clarify that the employers were not required to show that the accommodation requested by the employee would have created undue hardship, as long as they fulfilled their obligations to offer reasonable accommodations. Even so, the court noted, the employers had shown the accommodations requested by Farah — to continue to pray in the lobby, the hallway, or occupied offices — would create an undue hardship. The court recognized that the disruptions being requested by Farah were valid considerations in whether an undue hardship existed.

The takeaway

The case law surrounding religious accommodations and undue hardships continues to develop, particularly here in the Tenth Circuit (whose rulings apply to all Oklahoma employers). As it does, employers need to be aware of the obligation to provide reasonable accommodations and to engage in the interactive process with employees. And just as you document your efforts concerning disability accommodations, you should do so with respect to religious accommodations. Each situation should be evaluated on its own unique circumstances — one size does not fit all when it comes to accommodations.

  •  Farah v. A-1 Careers, Case No. 12-2692-SAC (D. Kan. Nov. 10, 2013)