Must Workers Be A Church Member To Have “Religious” Beliefs That Are Protected From Religious Discrimination?
Having represented employment discrimination victims for more than twenty years, our Citrus County wrongful termination lawyers know that a common employment law myth is that employees must be a member of a church or a formal religious sect in order be protected from religious discrimination. Under this employment law myth, unless employees are a member of a church or a formal religious sect, they do not have “religious” beliefs that qualify for protection from religious discrimination under federal employment discrimination law. Because of this employment law myth, our Inverness, Florida wrongful termination attorneys have learned, many employees are unaware of their religious-based rights under federal employment discrimination law. In this article, our Citrus County wrongful termination lawyers explain how the decision in Gardner-Alfred v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2023 WL 253580 (S.D. N.Y. Jan. 26, 2023) demonstrates that employees do not have to be a member of a church or a formal religious sect in order to have “religious” beliefs that qualify for protection from religious discrimination under federal employment discrimination law.
Protection From Religious Discrimination
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. Title VII defines the term “religion” to include all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief. To protect employees from religious discrimination, Title VII also contains a reasonable accommodation requirement. Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs when they conflict with employment requirements, unless the employer can demonstrate that an accommodation would impose an undue hardship.
To be protected from religious discrimination under Title VII, employees must establish that their belief is sincerely held and that the belief is “religious.” The sincerity of an employee’s religious belief, as observed by the court in Tagore v. United States,735 F.3d 324 (5th Cir. 2013), is “rarely challenged” and “claims of sincere religious belief in a particular practice have been accepted on little more than the [employee’s] credibility assertions.” In other words, if an employee claims that the beliefs are sincerely held, courts generally accept the employee’s representation.
What Is A “Religious” Belief Under Title VII?
An employee’s representation, however, that the belief held is “religious” is not sufficient. In determining whether an employee’s belief is “religious” and entitled to protection under Title VII, as explained by the court in Patrick v. LeFevre, 745 F.2d 153, 157 (2d Cir. 1984), courts consider whether the belief is, in the employee’s “own scheme of things, religious.” In other words, the employee must conceive of the beliefs as religious in nature. In applying this elusive definition of what is a “religious” belief, courts have ruled that philosophical and personal belief systems are not religious beliefs. Thus, an employee’s intellectual concerns are not protected by Title VII. However, as observed by the court in Caviezel v. Great Neck Pub. Sch., 701 F.Supp.2d 414, 427 (E.D. N.Y. 2010), an employee “need not be a member of a formal religious sect or church to have ‘religious’ beliefs.” In fact, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, (1965), a person’s religious beliefs need not come from a traditional “God,” but rather may follow from a belief in something that “occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.”
Religious Discrimination Lawsuit
In Gardner-Alfred, a woman named Gardner-Alfred brought a religious discrimination claim against her former employer, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), pursuant to Title VII. Gardner-Alfred claims that the FRBNY violated Title VII by denying her a reasonable accommodation for her religious beliefs. Instead of accommodating her religious beliefs, Gardner-Alfred maintains, the FRBNY terminated her employment in violation of Title VII.
The FRBNY is one of twelve Federal Reserve Banks that make up the Federal Reserve system. Gardner-Alfred began her employment with the FRBNY approximately thirty-five years ago. During that time, Gardner-Alfred has held several titles and most recently was an executive assistant. In March 2020, the FRBNY implemented a mandatory remote work policy for its employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2021, the FRBNY notified its employees that it would soon require employees to return to the office on a part-time basis.
Shortly thereafter, the FRBNY asked employees to provide their COVD-19 vaccination status. Gardner-Alfred informed the FRBNY that she was not vaccinated. In August 2021, the FRBNY implemented a COVID-19 vaccination policy, requiring that every employee be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccination policy allows for certain religious and medical exemptions. Specifically, the vaccination policy provides an exemption “as required by law, for employees unable to obtain a vaccine due to a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief that precludes receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Refusal To Be Vaccinated Against COVID-19
Gardner-Alfred declined to receive any vaccination against COVID-19 for religious reasons. Gardner-Alfred is a member of the Temple of Healing, which is a belief system that emphasizes “holistic approaches to health focused on diet and spiritual self-awareness, and opposes the invasive techniques of Western medicine.” For Gardner-Alfred, the COVID-19 vaccines, by reason of their “provenance, chemical composition, and origin,” represent “unacceptable intrusions on her personal form.”
The FRBNY denied Gardner-Alfred’s request for a religious exemption from its vaccination policy. The FRBNY explained that it could not reasonably accommodate Gardner-Alfred because some of her essential job functions required her to be physically in the workplace. The FRBNY further explained that it could not reasonably accommodate Gardner-Alfred because doing so would create increased safety risks for the FRBNY and its employees. Because she refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Gardner-Alfred’s employment was terminated in March 2022.
Church Membership Not Required
The FRBNY filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Gardner-Alfred’s religious discrimination claim. In moving for dismissal, the FRBNY argued that Gardner-Alfred’s beliefs did not constitute “religious” beliefs that entitled her to protection under Title VII. Because Gardner-Alfred’s beliefs were not protected “religious” beliefs, the FRBNY further argued, the FRBNY was not required by Title VII to accommodate her beliefs and could lawfully fire for violating it vaccination policy. The trial court denied the FRBNY’s motion for dismissal and ruled that Gardner-Alfred had alleged sufficient facts to plausibly establish that she was discriminated against because of her religious beliefs in violation of Title VII.
The trial court found that Gardner-Alfred’s beliefs as a member of the Temple of Healing Spirit were, “in her own scheme of things, religious mandates and not purely intellectual beliefs or views about her own self-interest.” The trial court also pointed out that although the “Temple of Healing may not be a well-recognized belief system,” an employee “need not be a member of a formal religious sect or church to have religious beliefs. Because Gardner-Alfred had established that her beliefs were religious in nature, her beliefs qualified as “religious” beliefs and, thus, were entitled to protection under Title VII.
Citrus County Wrongful Termination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our wrongful termination attorneys in Marion County, Florida have dedicated their practice to representing employment discrimination victims. If you have experienced workplace discrimination or have questions about your protection from religious discrimination under federal employment discrimination law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our wrongful termination lawyers in Marion County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes wrongful termination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.