Understanding the Legality of Faith at Work

Is it legal to practice faith at work? The simple answer is “Yes!” Business leaders and employees alike have the liberty to express their faith in the workplace. It happens every day in every state in this country.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 both lay the framework for how you can and cannot live out your faith in the workplace. Below are resources that dive deeper into the legal aspects of faith at work and frequently asked questions employers and employee have, but the central message to remember is this:

It is legal to express your faith in the workplace as long as it is not mandatory or creates a hostile environment for individuals who do not share the same beliefs as you. 

From the Experts

Can a Christian Business Owner Conduct the Affairs of their business based on biblical principles?
Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged that private companies and their owners have a right to base business decisions on religious convictions and a Christian worldview. See Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2751 (2014). In addition, at least one court has determined that requiring employees to participate in training that is based on biblical principles is not illegal. Kolodziej v. Smith, 588 N.E.2d 634 (Mass. 1992).

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act legally supports business owners and employers conducting their business based on biblical principles. Business owners should feel free to run their business according to the dictates of their conscience. But in accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, how they bring faith into the workplace must be voluntary. Business leaders cannot create a hostile environment for or impart negative consequences to employees who do not agree or do not practice the same beliefs.  
Why is it important for business owners, employers, and employees to know and understand our laws that provide for religious liberties?
Business owners, employers, and employees should know and understand the federal, state, and local laws regarding religious liberties so that everyone knows their rights and knows the boundaries within the workplace to avoid violating others’ rights. See Bostock v. Clayton, 140 S.Ct. 1731 (2020) (employment discrimination based on “sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity). See also EEOC v. Preferred Management Corp., 216 F.Supp2d 763 (S.D. Ind. 2002) (court found Christian business owner committed serious systemic violations of anti-discrimination laws in employment based on religious harassment).

Every organization has at least one employee who is a believer in a religion. It’s important to be sensitive to their religious beliefs and practices. Legally, faith can be practiced in the workplace, but businesses must understand the religious freedoms individuals have while applying them wisely to all employees of many faiths and no faiths.
How does the separation of church and state in America apply to the workplace?
The concept of separation of church and state derives from the First Amendment and thus applies primarily to government actors rather than private employers. In that context, as the U.S. Supreme Court has explained, separation of church and state does not require complete separation, but instead requires accommodation and forbids hostility toward any religion. SeeLynch v. Donnely, 465 U.S. 668, 673 (1984).

The concept of separation of church and state goes back to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist in 1806, assuring them that government would not infringe upon the expression of religious freedom. Separation of church and state requires the accommodation of a person’s religious expression while prohibiting and protecting against hostility towards any religion.
Does the First Amendment provide protections or restrictions in the workplace?
The First Amendment provides protections and restrictions in the federal workplace and in government environments such as public schools. See U.S. DOE Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (January 16, 2020); U.S. Attorney General Memorandum for All Executive Departments and Agencies: Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty (October 6, 2017).

The First Amendment addresses government action and intrusion upon religious liberties, meaning the government shall not establish a religion or hinder religious expression in schools, public workplaces, and federal workplaces.
What are some of the laws that protect religious liberties in the workplace?
In the private (non-government) workplace, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of the primary federal laws that protection religious liberties in the workplace and prohibit discrimination based on religion. See 42 U.S.C. 2000e. The Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb protects businesses and business owners against the government placing substantial burdens on religious exercise.

The First Amendment addresses government action and intrusion upon religious liberties, meaning the government shall not establish a religion or hinder religious expression in schools, public workplaces, and federal workplaces

The Federal Religious Freedoms Restoration Act was enacted by Congress in 1993 to affirm our religious liberties and prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of their religion.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against discrimination or adverse actions in the workplace based on religion.
As an employer, can I pray for and pray with my employees?
An employer can pray for employees. Employers may pray with employees in the workplace as long as participation by employees is voluntary and does not give the impression that non-participation would in any way effect their employment. See EEOC v. Townley Eng'g & Mfg. Co., 859 F.2d 610, 615 (9th Cir. 1988) (holding that an employer must accommodate atheist employee by allowing him to opt out).

The law does not prohibit prayer in the workplace. Business owners and employers have to be sensitive to how they conduct prayer in the workplace and how they integrate prayer in the workplace. Prayer can be included in meetings and at different times in the workday but it needs to be voluntary for others. Business owners and employers need to give employees and others an opt-out opportunity and it has to be genuine. An employee must feel confident that they can truly opt-out without repercussions or retaliation.
As an employer, can I pass out religious literature to my employees?
Employers are legally allowed to express their religious beliefs in the workplace, including through literature such as a Bible verse in their email signature or a religious event flyer on a bulletin board, but they need to be sensitive not to create a hostile atmosphere where employees feel they must adopt those convictions.
Can employees or employers lead Bible studies in the workplace?
It is permissible for an employee or employer to conduct or participate in a Bible study during breaks for personal time throughout the workday. It should be clearly communicated that participation is voluntary and that there will be no benefit related to your employment status or detriment to employment status whether you participate or not.
What are some limitations, cautions, or concerns about expressing faith and about engaging in religious activities in the workplace?
When expressing faith in the workplace, it is important that it is done in such a way that does not create a hostile environment for others. Practices of faith at work should be completely voluntary and there should be no repercussions or benefits based on participation. If concern or objection is expressed by an employee, it’s important that business leadership listens to the employee’s perspective and makes a genuine effort to follow-up and make accommodations.
What if you have employees from various religious backgrounds?
The laws that enable businesses and business leaders to practice the Christian faith in the workplace also protect practices of all other religions. Employers are required to accommodate all religious practices in the workplace as long as it does not cause undue hardship to the business, such as disrupting schedule, production, or performance for workers or costs the business a significant amount of money.
Do religious liberties change if you’re a US-based company with global operations?
Certain countries have drastically different laws regarding religious liberties in the workplace. A business owner should seek to fully understand the religious regulations in the country in which they are operating their particular business.
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    Proverbs 3:27

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