In a recent amicus brief filed in the 8th Circuit, the EEOC has urged heightened protections for workers who object to mandatory vaccinations due to sincerely-held religious beliefs. The EEOC’s amicus brief highlights the unique difficulties employers face when forced to accommodate a religious belief under Title VII.
The case, Ringhofer v. Mayo Clinic Ambulance, involves two longtime employees who worked as a paramedic and registered nurse for the Mayo Clinic. When the Mayo Clinic implemented a mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy for its employees, the two plaintiffs objected, and sought religious exemptions based on the grounds that the vaccines were “all produced with or tested with cells from aborted human babies” and that their bodies were “Temple[s] to the Holy Spirit.” The Mayo Clinic denied the religious accommodations, and both employees sued.
The District Court granted the Mayo Clinic’s preliminary motion to dismiss the complaint. On appeal, the EEOC has taken the side of the employees, and argues that the District Court erred in giving short shrift to their sincerely-held religious beliefs.
Though Title VII prohibits discrimination based on religion, it has a broad a definition of religion that includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). The EEOC’s Compliance Manual provides that whether a belief or practice is religious depends on “whether the beliefs are, in the individual’s own scheme of things, religious.” This applies regardless of whether the belief is part of an organized religion or merely subscribed to by one person.
Some courts, including the Eighth and Third Circuits, have adopted a three-factor approach for determining whether a belief or practice is religious:
- A religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters;
- A religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching;
- A religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.
Love v. Reed, 216 F.3d 682, 687 (8th Cir. 2000).
Complicating matters further, the Code of Federal Regulations defines “religious practices” to include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views,” 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1. In essence, employees can request religious accommodations for virtually any belief that purports to deal with ethics if they profess that their belief is strong enough, and not a mere preference. If the employer can reasonably accommodate the request, then they must do so under Title VII.
This broad definition of religious belief or practice leads to unusual results. For example, a belief that social security numbers are “diabolical” has been found to be sufficient where the plaintiff claimed that the belief derived from the New Testament Book of Revelation. Callahan v. Woods, 658 F.2d 679, 685 (9th Cir. 1981). And since the courts do not base religious convictions on their being part of a formal, organized religion, it makes no difference whether such a belief is required by the Bible, Koran, or Flying Spaghetti Monster—Title VII will still protect it.
Medical employers across the country will likely raise an eyebrow that the implementation of a common-sense safety policy like vaccine-mandates for nurses could be legitimately challenged in court by an anti-vaxxer Pastafarian. But that is the reality of Title VII.