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What Constitutes a Sincere Religious Belief?

Written by Ronda Higgins Thornton on May 15th, 2009

The law requires reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs.  So what’s a sincerely held belief?  Contrary to popular belief, it is has nothing to do with how popular, organized or longstanding a belief system may be.  The law is intended to offer very broad protections and extend to those that craft their own belief system, those that do not have a following and those that do not have a regular place or time of worship.  In fact, the established rule of law has been that the religious beliefs do not need to be acceptable, logical or comprehensible to others.  With that said, courts have been adamant that Title VII only protects sincerely held religious, moral or ethical beliefs and does not apply to political or similar beliefs.


One of the best examples of a broad interpretation of the Title VII sincerely held belief standard is that of Bruce Anderson, an Orange County bus driver who was suspended and later fired from his job with the Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) in 1996.  The OCTA was running a promotion in conjunction with Carl’s Jr. which required all bus drivers to pass out coupons for free burgers to passengers.  Anderson refused on the grounds that he was a vegetarian and “could not support the slaughtering of cows.”  The case eventually settled out of court for $50,000 but Anderson’s ethical beliefs would likely have been upheld as sincerely held and one that the OCTA should have attempted to make a reasonable accommodation for before terminating him.  A reasonable accommodation in this case could have been allowing Anderson to place the coupons in a manner that passengers could pick them up without Anderson having to pass them out or transferring him to non-driver position during the promotion.  


Factors that may undermine an assertion of sincerely held beliefs are whether the employee behaves in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief and whether the benefits is likely being sought for secular reasons.  What constitutes a religious belief is actually one of the least debated facets of religion based discrimination, while the topic of what constitutes a reasonable religious accomodation has become a real hotbed issue with work schedule requests, employee appearance, diversity pledges and workplace proselytizing are amongst the most debated.  


For more information, please visit EEO Consultations.


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