A municipal council in Sweden passed a new guideline banning employees at its schools, offices and other local government buildings from praying during work hours.
The policy was passed in the Bromölla, a coastal municipality in southern Sweden, according to the regional newspaper Kristianstadsbladet.
The local council is controlled by politicians belonging to the conservative Sweden Democrats Party. The policy passed last week.
"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," Chairman Eric Berntsson, who also chairs the local chapter of the Sweden Democrats, told The Local. "Both we and the Moderates and the Christian Democrats thought that the regulations should be more precise."
Berntsson argued that the rule is similar to policies that ban employees from taking cigarette breaks while on the clock. He added that the ban is universal and applies to adherents of all religions.
In addition to schools, the rule will also reportedly apply to nursing homes and council offices. The ban does not apply to employees' official break periods.
Some fear that the rule violates employees' religious freedom rights, as prayer is a vital part of life for many religious adherents. And for Muslims, many are called to pray five times per day, even on a workday.
According to Kristianstadsbladet, the municipal council contends that the new policy actually protects religious freedom because religious freedom also includes the "right to avoid public religious expression."
Although the ban applies to all religions, many believe the rule will mostly impact Muslims because of the frequency of their prayers each day.
Laurence Wilkinson, a London-based attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom International, a Christian organization, told Premier that the law could be considered a form of "indirect discrimination."
Wilkinson stressed that the council even admitted that it doesn’t know how many people the rule will affect.
"It seems that they would have quite an uphill battle to try and justify the rule in the first place," Wilkinson said.
Responding to the council's argument that people have a right to avoid religion, Wilkinson said that such a claim is usually understood in the context of formal prayer at council meetings or other public events.
"This says, 'at no point during your working day can you take time off to pray,’” Wilkinson explained.
Marie Wäppling, the municipality's chief executive, told the Expressen newspaper that if employees pray quietly without disturbing others, "the employer can't check that."
"That's the case whatever religion you adhere to," she was quoted as saying.
But for Muslims, their prayers are more obvious since they usually involve kneeling on a rug.
Although Wilkinson says he is no expert when it comes to Swedish equality law, he believes it could be possible to see a legal appeal of the rule 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.”