I want to address something called Onionhead. The reason to focus on this is COVID-19, but we’ll get to that.

The year is 2007 and a small wholesale company on Long Island, N.Y., decides it wants to fix its workplace culture by implementing a new program developed by the CEO’s aunt.

This program required employees to use candles instead of lights to keep demons out of the workplace, conduct chants and prayers in the office and respond to certain emails regarding spiritual and religious matters.

Internally, this program was known as Onionhead.

Incredibly, there were several employees who objected to having Onionhead forced upon them and were fired after voicing such objections.

The terminated employees sued the company and alleged religious discrimination. The company countered that Onionhead was a program and not a religion. The court held that Onionhead was a religion, and a jury later awarded the employees $5.1 million in damages (later reduced to $1.8 million).

What does this have to do with COVID-19?

As you probably know, employers and politicians throughout the country have grown tired of the “carrot” phase of vaccination policies and are now firmly utilizing the “stick” by introducing mandatory vaccination policies. Unless located in a jurisdiction that prohibits such a policy, mandatory policies have consistently been upheld as lawful – subject to the policy’s flexibility with respect to protected categories such as disability and religion!

And here is where we come full circle with Onionhead. Like that small wholesale company, I suspect many of you were surprised that the company was sued for religious discrimination, and that a federal court agreed.

Our clients have recently been inundated with requests for religious exemptions to the company’s mandatory vaccination policy. Most of the religions in these requests were ones I was familiar with and some I was learning about for the first time.

As you probably guessed from the Onionhead decision, the definitions of “religion” under federal, state and local laws are quite broad, and they apply whether the religious beliefs or practices are traditional or non-traditional.

It is also not relevant if they are recognized by any organized religion. The test is whether the beliefs, practices or observances are sincerely held, and whether the employer was notified of some conflict between the employee’s religious belief and the employer’s policy.

Perhaps sensing the sharp uptick in religious exemption requests, the EEOC recently updated its Technical Assistance Guide to include a Q&A on religious accommodation requests. They even shared their internal accommodation form.

A question I am frequently asked – and more so of late – is under what scenarios can an employer deny an accommodation requested on the basis of a religious belief?

The short legal answer is that an employer may deny a request if it has an objective basis for questioning the sincerity of the religious belief. Objections based on social, political or personal preferences are not protected. An employer can also generally deny a request if the requested accommodation is either unreasonable or would impose an undue hardship on the business.

Some of you may have received religious requests where there is a strong suspicion that the motivation behind the request is not as pure as the driven snow.

The determination as to whether the belief is “sincerely” held is essentially a question of credibility. Denying a request on such grounds likely leaves the door open to litigation. Instead, employment attorneys will usually advise clients to focus more on the requested accommodation, and less on the religious belief.

If the request is reasonable, denying that request is not the hill you want to die on.

Brian G. Klein is the co-founder of Weinstein + Klein P.C., a boutique law firm based in Morristown, N.J., that focuses on the representation of business owners. He primarily works with clients on various labor and employment law issues. This is the first installment of a regular column he will be writing on labor and employment law.