Thursday, April 8, 2021

Title VII and “fringe" religions

"A pagan says she faced religious discrimination while working at Panera. Now, she’s suing." So reads the headline at the Washington Post. The plaintiff claims that after she told an assistant manager that she was pagan, her hours were cut and she was told they wouldn't be restored until she "found God" (in addition to other alleged workplace harassment). 

A lawsuit is merely a one-sided collection of allegations. I have no idea if this Panera discriminated against this employee. But her story raises an interesting issue under Title VII—what qualifies as a protected religion? Title VII defines "religion" very broadly. It not only includes traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also those that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, or only held by a small number of people. Paganism almost certainly falls under the latter.

This issue may have some real-world applicability in your workplace surrounding the issue of exceptions to mandatory vaccination policies. An employer must engage an employee in the interactive process if an employee objects on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. 
If you have an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, observance, or practice, as the EEOC makes clear, an employer "is entitled to make a limited inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the employee's claim that the belief or practice at issue is religious and sincerely held, and that the belief or practice gives rise to the need for the accommodation."

Thus, while, per the EEOC, an "employer should ordinarily assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief," an employer need not take an employee at his or her word if it has an objective basis not to do so. 

These are complex issues fraught with legal risk that require nuanced handling. If you have any questions about an employee's religious accommodation request, it's best to check in with your friendly neighborhood employment lawyer than risk an ugly discrimination lawsuit.

* Image by Dan Farrell on Unsplash