One myth we’ve heard from customers and friends is that in order for employees to be exempt from immunization mandates for religious reasons, the employee must belong to a religious group that opposes the COVID vaccine. However, under Title VII, employees are entitled to religious accommodations whether or not they are part of an organized religion.
To provide some context, under Title VII, employers are required to reasonably accommodate the sincere religious beliefs or practices of a candidate or employee, unless it would cause undue hardship to the company. of the employer. 42 USC §2000 (e) (j). But what is a sincere religious belief?
It may surprise some readers that a sincere religious belief does not have to be affiliated with a formal religion. The Title VII enforcement agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), states that “the law not only protects people who belong to traditional and organized religions, such as the Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, but also others who sincerely have religious, ethical or moral convictions. As a result, employees can have a valid religious belief under Title VII even if they are the only person having that belief.
In addition, employers cannot deny an employee religious accommodation because the employer considers the religious belief to be unreasonable, incorrect or implausible. For example, if an employee refused to receive the vaccine because he believed the vaccine would violate his religious belief that “my body is a temple,” but the employer knew that the employee regularly participated in activities that objectively harmed to his body, such as alcohol or drug consumption, the employer cannot refuse an accommodation on the sole basis of this contradictory fact.
Even if employees are affiliated with a religious organization, it is important to note that employers cannot refuse an accommodation because the head of that organization has a different belief than the employee. See EEOC c. Consol Energy Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. 2017). For example, a Catholic employee might have a religious belief that they cannot receive any of the COVID vaccines due to concerns about their contents, even though the Vatican has issued statements stating that the overall moral duty is to be vaccinated.
In addition, atheist employees were found to have sincere religious beliefs and therefore are protected under Title VII. See Reed v. Great Lakes Companies, Inc. 330 F.3d 931 934 (7th Cir. 2003) (“If we think that religion takes a stand on divinity, then atheism is indeed a form of religion.”), EEOC c. Townley Eng’g & Mfg. Co., 859 F.2d 610, 614-21 (9th Cir. 1988) (the employer must adapt to an employee’s atheism; no undue hardship because exempting the employee from services does not would not have cost or caused any disruption), Young v. Sw. Sav. & Ass’n Loan, 509 F.2d 140 (5th Cir. 1975) (finding that Title VII was violated by requiring an atheist employee to attend the prayer portion of a business meeting).
When assessing whether an employee’s religious belief is sincere, it is important for employers to err on the side of caution and remember that there is not a long list of criteria that a belief must meet to be successful. be protected by Title VII.
This information is up to date as of October 13, 2021.