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Should You Test an Employee’s Religious Beliefs?

Do you know if employees’ religious beliefs are sincerely held?  Hard to know, but don’t start grilling them about their chosen religion when facing a request for a related reasonable accommodation. 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from religious discrimination and harassment.  The law requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business.  Examples of common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to the workplace policies or practices.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal watchdog for employment discrimination laws, filed suit against Baystate Medical Center in Massachusetts, alleging Baystate terminated a human resources professional because of her religious beliefs when she refused a flu shot.  The hospital had a mandatory flu vaccination policy and the employee, a Christian, refused.  The hospital required employees who refused a flu shot to wear a face mask at all times.  The employee was seen not wearing the mask and the hospital terminated her employment.  In her HR position, the employee did not have any direct contact with patients.

As part of the lawsuit, the hospital argued the employee’s beliefs were not sincerely held because she could not (1) identify the author of First Corinthians; (2) she was not sure if the words “vaccination” or “medication” were in the Bible; and (3) she could not name an authority such as a scholar or mentor other than God to validate her beliefs.  The Court denied the employer’s motion, finding the employee’s failure to answer these questions did not establish the employee’s beliefs were not sincerely held and therefore prevented further interrogation of the employee’s depth of knowledge.   

While a religious belief must be sincerely held to be entitled to accommodation, the law does not require an employee to be an expert or religious scholar.  Therefore, grilling your employees on the depth of their religious knowledge when faced with a request for religious accommodation is misguided and ultimately ineffective. 

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.