The question of "what is religion?" has been litigated extensively.  What do you think about these groups? Rastafarian, Wiccan, Church of Marijuana, Voodoo, Atheism, Ethical Culture Society, Church of Body Modification?  

According to the EEOC Technical Assistance Training Seminar I attended last week in Pasadena, "religion" is defined as follows:

A sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God.

  • Religion includes not only traditional organized religion, but also "moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views." (Note: this would cover "atheism".)

Some courts say that religion refers to ultimate ideas about life, purpose, death, including right and wrong.

I once investigated a religious discrimination case where the female employee refused to enter the male supervisor’s office to receive an "official discussion" (the first step of progressive discipline for this employer) for something she had done wrong at work. When she repeatedly refused to come into the supervisor’s office, she was given a "letter of warning" for insubordination for refusing to come into his office to receive her official discussion.   When she filed her EEO claim alleging "religious discrimination," she identified her religion as follows:  "My husband and I vowed to never be alone in a room with a person of the opposite sex."   Does that spousal vow constitute a "religion"?  Personally, I highly doubt it.  However, I could see this employee arguing that her articulated religion falls within the second bullet point above:  "a moral or ethical belief as to what is right and wrong which is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views."  

As an EEO investigator, it is not always easy to predict what a court might say on this question. However, the EEO investigator does need to probe all of these facets of what courts believe make up a "religion" and the investigator should probe into whether the belief is "sincerely held" by looking at the employee’s prior conduct for consistency (or lack of) regarding the "belief" or whether something else is truly motivating the employee’s conduct or religious accommodation request.

According to the EEOC presenter, Michael J. Farrell, Esq., Supervisory Trial Attorney of the EEOC Los Angeles District Office, religion does NOT include:

  • Practice or espousal of social, political, or economic philosophy.
  • Personal preference.
  • Some cases identify single dimensional beliefs as not constituting a religion, such as, "Church of Marijuana."

According to Attorney Farrell, an employer can ask for the employee to corroborate his claims of religious beliefs, and of course, the employer can always challenge whether the beliefs are "sincerely held."   See my prior post on "sincerely held beliefs."