A town council in Sweden has banned prayer during work hours at schools, care homes, and government offices in their municipality.
The policy, passed by a Democrat-controlled majority in Bromölla, a coastal municipality, restricts all individuals from being able to practice their religion as desired while on specific properties.
According to the Kristianstadsbladet newspaper, the council, controlled by the conservative Sweden Democrats Party, argued citizens have the “right to avoid public religious expression.”
Eric Berntsson, who chairs the local chapter of the Sweden Democrats, argued having religious freedom also includes not being impacted by someone else’s faith.
“In the regulation, we have cut out everything which could be interpreted as saying that you can take time off to pray during work time,” he said. “Both we and the Moderates and the Christian Democrats thought that the regulations should be more precise.”
Berntsson further argued the prayer-ban is similar to a rule stipulating employees are not allowed to take breaks during work to smoke cigarettes.
Not only is prayer now banned in schools, but it is also allegedly banned from nursing homes and council offices. These new rules are striking up a conversation, as some believe that they directly violate their religious freedoms.
For employees whose lives are highly impacted by their prayer life, this change is alarming. Even though the prayer ban impacts everyone, it is believed it will mostly impact Muslims, as they pray five times throughout the day.
The law could be considered indirect discrimination
Laurence Wilkinson, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom International told Premier the law could be “indirect discrimination.”
“They’ve essentially justified it on the basis that under the right to religious freedom, there’s also a right not to be subjected to religion and a right to avoid public religious expression is how they framed it,” he explained.
“But of course,” he added, “that’s usually understood in the context of a formal prayer to begin maybe a council meeting.”
The council has argued the ban is non-discriminatory because it’s pointed at all religions, but Wilkinson believes it may be selective in how it discriminates.
“In equality law, you have a concept of discrimination where you treat somebody less favorably, because of protective characteristics,” he pointed out.
“So if you were to say, ‘Muslims cannot pray in the workplace’, that’s a very obvious case of direct discrimination. But what you could also do is have indirect discrimination, you can have a rule that on its face doesn’t affect a particular group, but in practice, when it’s applied, the only people that it captures are one specific set of people who have protective characteristics.”
He went on to say the law’s advocates are facing “quite an uphill battle” in attempting to justify the discriminatory statute.
Marie Wäppling, the municipality’s chief executive, said there are exceptions to the rule. Wäpplingtold the Expressen newspaper, as long as employees pray quietly, “the employer can’t check that.”
“That’s the case, whatever religion you adhere to,” she pointed out.
Wilkinson added that, although his expertise is not Swedish equality law, he could potentially see this case go before the European Court of Human Rights.
“I think what the council is doing here is it is trying to send a message, and I am not sure what the message is,” Wilkinson said. “Some may interpret it as a message that we don’t want Muslims praying during working hours. If that is the case then it potentially has a discriminatory effect.”