On Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. In season 3, she is desperate to have a local plot of land preserved as a National Park. She admits, “I’m looking for anything to strengthen my case,” including “religious reasons.” This leads her to meet with a “9th level Octo-Priest in the Church of the Reasonabilists” who states that the land is sacred in his religion, which worships “Zorp the lizard god.”
Just as Leslie is desperate to invoke whatever reason she can to save her plot of land, some employees who are opposed to vaccination might similarly try to invoke religion. With more and more employers instituting mandatory vaccine policies, many employees are seeking religious exemptions under Title VII. When faced with such an accommodation request, employers must ask themselves 2 questions:
- Is the request based on a religious belief?
- Is the stated religious belief sincerely held?
What Constitutes a “Religious” Belief?
According to the EEOC, religion is “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief, not just practices that are mandated or prohibited by a tenet of the individual’s faith.” This can include traditional organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, but also religious beliefs that are “new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” This means that the “9th level Octo-Priest” on Parks and Recreation was in fact espousing a religious belief for Title VII purposes.
However, just because an employee’s exemption request mentions religion, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their objections to vaccination are actually religious. Many employees have framed their exemption requests as religious, but upon closer examination their opposition to the vaccine is entirely political or personal – e.g., “the vaccine is experimental” or “vaccine mandates violate freedom of choice.” Employers need not grant such requests, as they fail to implicate a religious belief.
Is the Religious Belief Sincerely Held?
Once an employer has established that their employee’s objections are religious in nature, the next question is whether they are sincere. Does the employee genuinely hold these beliefs, or are they like Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation and simply appealing to religion as an excuse? Generally, employers should assume that an employee’s stated religious beliefs are sincere, unless there is some reason to think otherwise. For example, on Parks and Recreation, the character April Ludgate declares “Hail Zorp!” mere seconds after learning about the Church of the Reasonabilists. Given the circumstances, Leslie would have grounds for thinking that her claimed devotion to Zorp might not be sincere.