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Prayer Meeting

Can employers meet Muslims' requests in the workplace?

When 30 Dell temporary employees walked off the job in February, saying they weren't allowed to conduct sunset prayers, it brought attention to Muslim prayer accommodation in the workplace.

Globally, there are an estimated 2 billion Muslims, with 7 million living in the United States. "Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world," says Rabiah Ahmed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, DC, advocacy group for the American Muslim community.

According to CAIR's annual civil rights report, religious accommodation is consistently one of the top three concerns for Muslim Americans. Muslims, Ahmed says, are "dealing with issues other minorities and religious groups have dealt with in trying to accommodate a religion as well as other responsibilities." A Muslim's responsibilities include praying five times a day, ideally in a certain time frame. And unlike in other faiths, Muslims need to step away from work to pray, Ahmed says.

Employers must accommodate workers who ask for that time unless accommodation creates an undue hardship on the business, says Lori Carr, an employment partner with law firm Gardere Wynne Sewell in Dallas. An undue hardship can be financial or nonfinancial, such as the impact on morale or scheduling. "It's really [determined] on a case-by-case basis," Carr says.

Ahmed believes entrepreneurs must be aware and flexible. "[Muslims' responsibilities] can be accommodated if both parties are willing to work at it," she says. CAIR offers a booklet that helps companies implement Islamic religious practice policies that work for both sides.

Employers could soon find it harder to claim undue hardship, no matter what the religion: In March, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act--which would update Title VII rules to require employers to accommodate employees' religious needs unless they would create "significant difficulty or expense"--re-emerged in Congress for the seventh consecutive session, co-sponsored by Sens. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and John Kerry (D-MA). With bipartisan support, it might not take a wing and a prayer to pass this time.

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the August 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Prayer Meeting.

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