Define the “sincere religious beliefs” that could excuse compulsory vaccination against COVID-19? | CDF Labor Law LLP

Whether or not a religious belief is sincere in a candidate or employee is rarely at issue in most religious discrimination lawsuits. With both EEOC and DFEH guidelines requiring employers to accommodate an employee who has a sincere religious belief that prevents them from receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines, the question of what a “sincere religious belief” has gained prominence in labor law. This is especially true for employers who decide to make COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment or a condition of receiving certain employment benefits.

Challenge the sincerity of a religious belief

Whether a belief is “sincerely held” is generally a matter of individual credibility. Although evidence proving that an employee has acted inconsistently with their allegedly sincere religious belief is relevant to determining whether the belief is sincere, such evidence is difficult to obtain in most cases and can often be overcome, since beliefs sincere nuns are not static and often change over time. See, for example, EEOC vs. Ilona of Hungary, Inc., 108 F.3d 1569, 1575 (7th Cir. 1997) (en banc) (finding that a Jewish employee proved that her request for leave to observe Yom Kippur was based on sincere religious belief, even though she had never , in her previous eight-year tenure requested time off for religious observance and admitted that she was generally not a very religious person, but evidence showed that the recent birth of her son and the death of his father had strengthened his religious convictions); EEOC v IBP, Inc., 824 F. Sup. 147, 151 (CD Ill. 1993) (stating that the Seventh-day Adventist employee’s prior lack of faith and subsequent loss of faith did not not to prove that his religious beliefs were not sincere when he refused to work on the Sabbath). The law is clear that a sincere believer does not renounce his religious rights simply because he is unscrupulous in his observance or has never openly manifested those beliefs in the past.

Sincere religious beliefs do not need to be express tenets of a religion to require accommodation

In cases of religious discrimination, employers often believe that the onus is on the employee to prove that sincere religious practice (for example, not getting vaccinated) is an express requirement of the employee’s religion, and in In the absence of evidence of such a requirement, no accommodation is necessary. However, the definition of sincere religious belief is not necessarily tied to express religious requirements.

Anderson vs. USF Logistics (IMC), Inc., 274 F.3d 470, 475 (7th Cir. 2001), is instructive on this point. In this Seventh Circuit case, the Court of Appeals held that an employer could not prevent an employee from using the phrase “Have a blessed dayas a greeting in his work emails, even though the use of the phrase was not expressly required by his religion (Christian Methodist Episcopal) and was unique to him.

In the federal circuit covering California, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion in Heller v EBB Auto Co., 8 F.3d 1433, 1438 (9th Cir. 1993), the Court held that the law “protects more than Sabbath observance or practices specifically mandated by an employee’s religion.” The Ninth Circuit explained the rationale for this conclusion:

Restricting the act to practices that are mandated or prohibited by a tenet of the religion would require the court to determine not only what the tenets of a particular religion are, . . . but would frequently require the courts to decide whether or not a particular practice is required by the tenets of the religion. . . . [S]what court decision [would] be irreconcilable with the warning issued by the Supreme Court in Fowler v. Rhode Island, 345 US 67 (1953)'[I]It is not for the courts to say. . . what is a religious practice or activity.’

That being said, at least under California law, the belief must have at least some religious basis to be considered an honest religious belief that must be taken into account. See in general Friedman vs. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, 102 cal. App. 4th 39 (2002) (stating that employee veganism is not a religious belief).

California case law on religious belief

In Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Comm., 12 Cal. 4th 1143, 1166 (1996), the California Supreme Court addressed the definition of “religious” belief under California law. In her plurality opinion, Associate Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, observed that a religious belief is something other than “a philosophy or a way of life.She further explained that “‘[R]religious beliefs do not need to be acceptable, logical, consistent, or understandable to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.‘” In Fellowship of Humanity c. Co.Alameda, 153 Cal. App. 2d 673 (1957), the Court of Appeal held that a religious belief does not necessarily require a connection with a belief in a god or supreme being, citing Buddhism and other religions.

The Friedman The case is the leading California case dealing with the definition of religious belief under state law and is quite extensive. He reviewed these California decisions, and others, and concluded that:

  1. The belief in a supreme being need not be a religious belief.
  2. It takes something more than a philosophy or a way of life for a belief to be considered a “religious” creed or belief.
  3. Among the factors to be considered is whether the belief occupies a parallel plane in a person’s life to that of a supreme being in recognized religions and whether it responds to ultimate concerns thereby filling a void in the life of the individual.
  4. The California court can and should look to federal authority on this issue (and the Friedman The decision spent many pages analyzing federal decisions interpreting “religious belief.”

In Freidmanthe complainant claimed that as a strict vegan, he “strongly believes that all living things should be valued equally and that it is immoral and unethical for humans to kill and exploit animals, even for food, clothing and testing. product safety for humans, and that such use is a violation of natural law.” Identifier. at 44 years old. This belief system guides the way he lives his life and he maintains that his beliefs are spiritual in nature and direct his entire way of life. Identifier.

In analyzing whether the Plaintiff’s veganism constituted an honest religious belief under California law, the Friedman ruling held that California’s definition of religious belief is actually much narrower than that provided by federal law. The Court of Appeals first ruled that “purely moral or ethical beliefs that are based on the strength of religious beliefs may not qualify for protection” under California law. Identifier. at 67. The Court found that California regulations require that “the belief, observance, or practice occupy a place in the employee’s life of parallel importance to that of traditionally recognized religions” in order to be a religious belief under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Identifier. In doing so, the Court noted that this “parallel importance to that of traditionally recognized religions” This requirement is not contained in federal law. Identifier.

To determine whether a person’s beliefs are not based on religion and therefore “religious” under this standard, the Friedman decision concluded that three requirements must be met:

  1. A religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions related to deep and imponderable questions.
  2. A religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching.
  3. A religion is often recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.

Using this standard to assess plaintiff Friedman’s veganism, the Court of Appeal concluded that:

  1. Claimant’s belief “that all living things should be of equal value and that it is immoral and unethical for humans to kill and exploit animals even for food, clothing and product safety testing for them. humans” does not address fundamental or ultimate questions. The Court concluded that he is not talking about the meaning of human existence; the purpose of life; theories about human nature or its place in the universe; matters of human life and death; or the exercise of faith. The Court held that there is no spiritual or otherworldly component to the plaintiff’s beliefs and that while veganism requires the plaintiff to live by strict rules of behavior, it reflects a moral and secular rather than religious philosophy.
  2. Second, the Court of Appeal found that while the plaintiff’s belief system governs his behavior in many respects, including the food he eats, the clothes he wears, and the products he uses, it does not is not sufficiently complete to fall under the provisions of rule 7293.1. Plaintiff does not assert that his belief system derives from some power or being or faith to which everything else is subordinate or upon which everything else depends
  3. The Court of Appeal also held that “Although not determinative, no formal or outward sign of a religion is present. There are no teachers or leaders; services or ceremonies; structure or organization; worship orders or articles of faith; or holidays. Identifier. at 70 years old.

Based on these findings, the Court of Appeal concluded that Friedman’s beliefs about veganism, while very strong and obviously sincere, were not worthy of accommodation as creed or sincere religious belief, at least under California law. The Court found that “the applicant’s veganism is a personal philosophy, though shared by many others, and a way of life” but was not based on religion and therefore not protected. The Court cautioned against concluding that veganism is never protected and suggested that a vegan lifestyle which, unlike Friedman’s, stems from a religious belief, may be protected as an honest belief/religious belief under California law.


Vanderbilt University recently published an excellent and interesting article about all the major religions and their views on vaccinations. The article states that virtually all commonly practiced religions in the United States do not require their followers to avoid vaccination. Thus, it may be tempting for employers to simply (a) consult this resource, or a similar resource, (b) ask the employee what religion they subscribe to that is the basis for their refusal to vaccinate, and (c ) then tell the employee that his anti-vaccination views are not “based on religion.However, as this article indicates, the investigation is far more complicated and nuanced than that.

Any employer faced with the question of whether or not an employee has sincere religious beliefs that prohibit the employee from being vaccinated against COVID-19 would be wise to seek legal advice from an employment lawyer. , who knows this area of ​​law well. .