In Part One of this two-part bulletin, we explored the expansive meaning of religious beliefs entitled to an accommodation under Title VII and the reluctance of courts to second guess whether a belief is “religious” in nature.
Even though the religious nature of a belief may not be an appropriate topic for inquiry, it is appropriate and necessary to differentiate between beliefs that are sincerely held as a matter of faith and those that are animated by a motive of fraud or deception.
The guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that the sincerity of an employee’s religious belief is usually not in dispute, and should generally be presumed or easily established. However, there may be situations where that is not the case.
That is what we explore in this follow-up bulletin regarding religious accommodations.
“The Temple of the Healing Spirits” of “Deland city, Florida Republic [sic]”
Lori Garner-Alfred and Jeanette Diaz were long-term employees of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In 2020 the Bank implemented a policy requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, except for those with medical or religious exemptions.
Ms. Garner-Alfred refused to be vaccinated and justified her refusal by asserting the need for a religious exemption. She claimed to be a member of The Temple of Healing Spirits, which prohibits the use of invasive techniques of traditional Western medicine, including vaccinations.
Ms. Garner-Alfred supported her request with a letter signed by the “[Rev. Dr.] Phillip Valentine. All rights reserved” from an address in “Deland city, Florida Republic.” (Not only did the good Reverend Doctor seek to reserve the rights to his name, but his address may also spark a civil war with the Conch Republic of Key West.)
Ms. Diaz also refused to be vaccinated on religious grounds, claiming to be a baptized Catholic. She supported her request with a form letter that she found on the internet from the Colorado Catholic Conference that included an objection to the use of vaccines created with cells derived from abortion.
Based on its investigation and the depositions of both plaintiffs, the Bank was able to establish the following undisputed facts:
- Ms. Garner-Alfred paid the Rev. Dr. Valentine $487 for a vaccination exemption form that he advertises for sale to the public on Facebook.
- An investigator hired by the Bank called the Rev. Dr. Valentine and was able to join the Temple of the Healing Spirits and receive a vaccination exemption without committing to any religious observances or practices. He just needed to pay $475 for admission, plus $12 for shipping and handling. (What? No free shipping on a $475 order?)
- During her deposition, Ms. Gardner-Alfred claimed to have been a member of The Temple of Healing Spirits for more than 20 years and to have attended virtual services at the Temple.
- Ms. Gardner-Alfred could not recall the name of a single person who attended such services and could not produce, or recall receiving, any emails with links to such services.
- Despite claiming that her religious beliefs and the teachings of her “Temple” prohibited her from putting “foreign, mankind [sic] medicines in her body,” she admitted to taking various man-made medicines, receiving various injections, having a bunion surgically removed, and getting dental implants. (Religion is one thing. Looking your best is quite another.)
- Ms. Diaz admitted to taking 14 different medications over the span of 10 years without ever checking to determine whether they were manufactured with the cell lines of aborted fetuses.
- Ms. Diaz admitted that she refused to take the COVID vaccine without first checking to determine whether there was any connection between it and the cells of aborted fetuses.
- The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are not manufactured with, nor do they contain, cells or cell lines from aborted fetuses.
- Ms. Diaz and Ms. Gardner-Alfred exchanged messages suggesting secular reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated, e.g., mind control.
(This is only a taste of the evidence the Bank was able to muster. You could sell tickets to some depositions. This is why I’d rather litigate employment cases than handle real estate closings.)
Dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims
In granting summary judgment to the Bank, the judge correctly noted that (1) a finding of sincerity does not require perfect adherence to the religious beliefs expressed; (2) even the most sincere practitioner of a religion may stray from its practices from time to time without their beliefs’ losing protection; and (3) unconventional religions and religious practices are entitled to protection. (See Part One.) However, the judge also correctly noted that an assertion of religious belief may be deemed insincere if a person acts in a manner markedly inconsistent with that belief or if there is evidence that the person obtains some material gain by fraudulently hiding secular interests behind a veil of religious doctrine.
With those as the principal guideposts, the judge recited the litany of undisputed facts (some of which have been described above) establishing that the plaintiffs’ purported religious objections to being vaccinated were not sincere, but instead were contrived for the purpose of hiding what were secular objections to being vaccinated.
Caution in challenging sincerity of religious beliefs
As noted above, the EEOC’s guidance suggests that the sincerity of a religious belief should generally be presumed, or easily established. And the fact that an adherent to a religious belief “falls off the wagon” and deviates from it falls far short of establishing a lack of sincerity.
Nonetheless, in the world of employee relations there are those who will use any device they can to secure the advantage they desire. Courts may be reluctant to question the truth of a religious belief, but they are accustomed to dealing with claims of deception.
Employers need to be aware that the issue of sincerity may be a viable defense to a claim of failure to provide a religious accommodation. Considering the heightened burden that now applies when an employer rejects a religious accommodation based on undue hardship, an evaluation of sincerity should be included in assessing the request.
The factors relevant to an assessment of sincerity include the following: (1) the extent to which an employee has behaved in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief – in other words, were the breaches occasional, or repeated; (2) whether the requested accommodation is a highly desirable benefit that is likely to have been sought for secular reasons; (3) whether the timing of the request is suspect; (4) whether the employee has previously expressed secular reasons for making the request; and (5) whether the employer has other reasons for believing that the request is not based on religion. These are delicate inquiries to make. But they should not be ignored.