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Can we require documentation from a religious authority to verify an employee's request for religious accommodation?

Tempting as it might be to require documentation from a religious authority to verify that the employee is a practicing member, guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) indicates that "[b]ecause the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs and practices with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely-held religious belief. If, however, an employee requests religious accommodation, and an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief or practice, the employer would be justified in seeking additional supporting information."

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a religious practice or belief is defined as "moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held. … The fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee or prospective employee."

An employee's request for a religious accommodation must communicate to the employer that there is a conflict between the job requirements and the employee's sincerely held beliefs and/or religious practices, regardless of whether the employee is a member of an organized religion or if the employee's practices and beliefs align with those of the organized religion with which the employee identifies.

When an employer disputes the sincerity of a particular belief or practice, the EEOC guidance allows the employer to request additional information; however, "since idiosyncratic beliefs can be sincerely held and religious, even when third-party verification is needed, it does not have to come from a church official or member, but rather could be provided by others who are aware of the employee's religious practice or belief." Examples include:

  • Written materials describing the religious belief or practice.
  • The employee's own firsthand explanation of sincerely held religious beliefs and practices.
  • Oral statements, an affidavit or other documents from an individual describing his or her beliefs and practices, including information regarding when the individual embraced the belief or practice, as well as when, where and how he or she has adhered to the belief or practice.
  • Oral statements, affidavits or other documents from potential witnesses identified by an individual or an employer as having knowledge of whether the individual adheres or does not adhere to the belief or practice at issue (e.g., religious leader (if applicable), fellow adherents (if applicable), family, friends, neighbors, managers or co-workers who may have observed his or her past adherence or lack thereof, or discussed it with him or her).

Further EEOC guidance indicates that "[a]n employee who fails to cooperate with an employer's reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation. By the same token, employers who unreasonably request unnecessary or excessive corroborating evidence risk being held liable for denying a reasonable accommodation request, and having their actions challenged as retaliatory or as part of a pattern of harassment."

The employee and employer are encouraged to use an interactive process for determining reasonable religious accommodations, and employees must be permitted to make accommodation requests free from intimidation, retaliation or overly intrusive inquiries.

SHRM has developed a Request for Religious Accommodation Form, which includes an employee affirmation while documenting an employer's good-faith efforts to accommodate.



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