Under California law, when you apply for a religious accommodation at workplace – your employer is entitled to request further information to better understand the reasons behind your request. The law is not clear what information the employer can inquire about, but they are entitled to a basic follow-up, reasonably necessary to address your request. This right has to be balanced against the idea that a claimed religious belief must generally be presumed true. Let’s look at two examples of religious accommodation requests and discuss one common mistake that an employee should avoid making in this process:
- Let’s say you are a Sabbath-observing Jew. You request that your employer allow you not to work on Saturdays to accommodate your religious practice. The employer would likely be allowed to ask you how long you have been observing Sabbath, and how strict your observance is, i.e. – whether you also do not drive, do not cook, and do not use a computer / TV on Saturdays. It would likely be unlawful for that employer to demand to test you on your knowledge of Judaism or condition granting your accommodation on your presenting some kind of documentation of your temple attendance.
- Let’s say you request a religious exemption from your employer’s requirement to be vaccinated against Covid-19 on the grounds of your adherence to an Eastern religion that cherishes purity of life and sanctity of body. Your employer is likely entitled to ask you for more information about your religion, even if it’s not an organized religion, and whether you also refrain from taking other vaccines or medications, and since when. The employer is likely not allowed to demand that you share with them your medication history from birth, a list of all of your religious beliefs, and other types of information that go far beyond what would be directly relevant to understanding the reasons behind your religious request.
It’s generally not a good idea to refuse to provide the employer with that additional information on the grounds of personal privacy or simply on principle. The law states that if you ask your employer for an accommodation (whether religious or medical), they are entitled to a clear understanding of why you are making that request. Refusal to engage in this type of dialogue often leads to discipline and termination with no legal recourse, since the employee would be found to have caused a breakdown in that reasonable accommodation discussion. Thus, the employee will be out of a job and without any basis for filing a wrongful termination case.