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Guide to Religious Accommodation
Click here to access the Guide to Religious Accomodation in PDF.
What is religious accommodation?
Under the B.C. Human Rights Code, employers and providers of public services and facilities (such as universities) have a mandatory duty to accommodate religious beliefs, observances, and practices to the point of undue hardship. Religious accommodation includes modification to, or time away from, work or study to practice the tenets of one's faith.
What can religious accommodation look like?
There are a number of areas where the practice of religion may result in a request for accommodation. For example:
- Observation of major holy days.
- Prayer or similar spiritual practices.
- Funeral practices or rites.
- Dietary requirements or fasting.
- Dress, including modesty requirements.
- Ablution/Wudu (e.g. washing of hands, face, and feet).
Accommodation is a shared responsibility – everyone involved (e.g. student and instructor, or employee and supervisor) should work together cooperatively and respectfully to decide on a reasonable accommodation. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all accommodation.
For example, if a student is asking to be absent on a recognized holy day, the accommodation may be to schedule a make-up exam on another day or to require the student to submit a make-up assignment.
As another example, during the month of Ramadan, many Muslims fast from dawn until sunset every day. Without any food or liquids (including water), Muslim students may experience fatigue throughout the day, which may adversely affect their academic performance. Having multiple exams on the same day can be particularly challenging for a fasting student. Many Muslims also participate in additional evening prayers during the month of Ramadan. In terms of what a reasonable accommodation may be, options may include:
- Moving the exam to an earlier time in the day (when the effects of fasting are less impactful and there are no prayer breaks needed).
- Moving the exam to a later time in the day (after the fast has been broken in the evening).
- Moving the exam to a different day.
- Providing additional time to the student to break their fast and/or pray during the class/exam.
How much accommodation is enough? What is meant by undue hardship?
The law requires SFU to accommodate employees and students to the point of undue hardship. If providing a certain accommodation would result in undue hardship to the University, SFU has no obligation to provide that accommodation. What constitutes undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis, but generally speaking, the University would need to show that accommodating a religious belief, observance, or practice would create unduly onerous conditions. Factors that are relevant to assessing undue hardship may include:
- Availability of human resources and financial resources;
- Disruption to the workplace, collective agreement, or learning or teaching environment;
- The effect of the accommodation on the rights or morale of other employees or students;
- The cost of the proposed accommodation;
- Any impact on efficiency and productivity;
- Any impact on the healthy and safety of the individual, other employees or students, or the general public; and
- SFU’s other legal obligations.
Accommodation should be requested at the earliest possible opportunity, as it may not be possible to accommodate last-minute requests without suffering undue hardship. When important dates are released (e.g. exam dates and project deadlines), you should immediately consider whether you will require religious accommodation.
How do I request religious accommodation?
Students should submit religious accommodation requests directly to their instructors. Employees should submit religious accommodation requests directly to their supervisors. You should:
- Request accommodation at the earliest possible opportunity (as it may not be possible to accommodate last-minute requests). If you initially requested accommodation in person or over telephone or Zoom, it is a good idea to document your request and the agreed-upon accommodation in a follow-up email. For tips on how to make accommodation requests, check out the SFU Multifaith Centre’s website.
- Provide information and any documentation that is reasonably requested.
- Engage in dialogue regarding your request and be open to considering alternative forms of accommodation.
- Accept reasonable accommodation even if it is not entirely ideal or your preferred accommodation. There is no legal obligation to provide exactly what is requested.
- Be open to ongoing dialogue and adjustments to the accommodation arrangement as circumstances change.
How do I review religious accommodation requests?
The duty of accommodate requires you to actively explore with the requestor what accommodation is needed, what supporting information is needed (if any), and what accommodation options exist. It is not sufficient to simply assume that no accommodation is possible, regardless of how accurate that assumption is likely to be. If you would like assistance with reviewing a religious accommodation request, consult with the Human Rights Office.
Which religions require accommodation?
In the leading case on freedom of religion, Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, the Supreme Court of Canada said that “defined broadly, religion typically involves a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship. Religion also tends to involve the belief in a divine, superhuman, or controlling power. In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.”
As long as a person has a religious belief that is “sincerely held”, they have a right to accommodation up to the point of undue hardship, even if others do not share the same belief. Accommodation obligations are not limited to only widely practiced or well-known religions.
If you receive an accommodation request for a religion or a religious belief that is unknown to you, keep an open mind, and do not make off-the-cuff judgments or comments on the legitimacy of any such belief or religion. If you are unsure of what to do, consult with the Human Rights Office or Multifaith Centre.
How do we verify that a religious belief is “sincerely held”? Is it appropriate to ask for proof?
It is generally not appropriate to ask the requestor to provide evidence that a particular belief, observance, or practice is required by a religion (e.g. a note from their clergy).
In most cases, it will not be necessary to inquire into the sincerity of the person’s religious belief, particularly where the requests relate to widely recognized religions (e.g. major holy days).
However, if necessary, sincerity can be assessed by analyzing whether the religious belief is consistent with the individual’s other current religious practices. SFU may inquire into the sincerity of a belief by considering:
- The spiritual nature of the belief;
- Previous religious experience;
- The relationship between those previous religious beliefs and the person’s current beliefs;
- The connection between the religious belief and the requested accommodation; and
- The extent to which the religious beliefs are applied in the person’s daily life.
Does it matter whether others who practice the same religion share the same religious beliefs, observances, or practices?
No, it does not matter. Religion is deeply personal. Not everyone who shares the same religion may seek accommodation or the same form of accommodation. You cannot deny a religious accommodation request solely on the basis that other practitioners of the same religion didn’t request accommodation or don’t share the same religious beliefs as the requestor.
Religious accommodation creates extra work for managers, professors, instructors, TAs and TMs. Has this been considered?
The University recognizes that religious accommodation creates extra work for professors, instructors, TAs, TMs, managers, and supervisors. However, because the duty to accommodate is a legal requirement, everyone must do their part to ensure that every person has the opportunity to fully and freely live, learn, and work at the University.
If you are requesting accommodation, keep in mind that there may be many requests for accommodation and this may impact the accommodation options available to you. This is another reason to submit your accommodation request at the earliest possible opportunity.
It is relatively easy to accommodate a religious practice for one or two days a year. However, the tenets of some religions require practices that are undertaken once a week or more. Is there a duty to accommodate such practices?
Yes. There is a duty to accommodate all sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances up to the point of undue hardship, even if the accommodations involve daily or weekly modifications.
Is it lawful to not hire someone because they will require religious accommodation?
Denying employment to a person because of their religion is discrimination contrary to the B.C. Human Rights Code, unless the denial is based on a bona fide occupational requirement. For example, if a job requires you to wear a hard hat for legitimate safety reasons but you cannot wear a hard hat because your religion requires you to wear a turban, an employer may lawfully refuse to hire you for that job. See our Guide to Discrimination in the Hiring Process for more information.
Is there a difference between days of religious significance and days of cultural significance? Do we have to accommodate cultural events?
Yes, there is a difference. There is generally no duty to accommodate cultural events – for example, Chinese New Year is a culturally significant event that may not have religious significance for many individuals. However, it may be possible for certain culture-related requests to engage the protected grounds of Indigenous identity, race, ancestry, and/or place of origin, which means that the duty to accommodate may be triggered, depending on the facts. Please consult with the Human Rights Office to discuss specific requests.
If you have any questions or concerns about religious accommodation, the Human Rights Office provides confidential and impartial advice, support, referrals, and information to students, faculty, and staff on all issues related to human rights. Contact us or visit our Get Help page for additional resources.