The Evidence Required to Establish when the Protected Ground of “Religious Beliefs” is Engaged


The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal (the “Tribunal”) recently released a quartet of decisions that confirm what evidence an individual must adduce in order to establish that the protected ground of “religious beliefs” is engaged under the Alberta Human Rights Act (the “Act”).

Each decision concerned Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (“CNRL”) and its September 23, 2021 implementation of a COVID-19 policy that required all employees, contractors, and site visitors to be immunized against COVID-19 (the “Policy”). Specifically, each decision and complaint related to a respective CNRL employee seeking accommodation under the Policy based on “religious beliefs” and whether the respective employee was required to provide objective evidence “that the requirement to be vaccinated [was] in conflict with specific religious beliefs or tenets” (such that an accommodation needed to be granted).

In all four decisions, the Tribunal was not persuaded that the respective complainant’s decision to refuse to vaccinate had an objective foundation that was linked to a tenet of a religious faith or that was a fundamental or important part of expressing that faith. Thus, the Tribunal held in each instance that without an objective foundation for the refusal to become immunized, there was an absence of evidence demonstrating that religious beliefs within the meaning of the Act were engaged.

The Cases

In Haahr v Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, 2024 AHRC 26, the complainant applied for an exemption from the Policy and provided a personal statement explaining his belief and that he would follow his "personal conscientious convictions." Notwithstanding requests from CNRL, at no time did the complainant supply objective confirmation from a religious authority that vaccination was prohibited. Based on the complainant's failure to comply with the Policy requirements, he was suspended without pay.

In Sheppard v Canadian Natural Resources Limited, 2024 AHRC 37, the complainant requested an exemption from the Policy and submitted a vaccine exemption form, a letter from a Reverend, and a document containing the complainant’s reasons for making the request for an exemption. CNRL ultimately denied the exemption application on the basis that the request was based on personal conviction and not on an objective tenet of faith, and it eventually suspended the complainant without pay due to non-compliance with the Policy.

In Scott v Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, 2024 AHRC 42, the complainant requested an exemption from the Policy and provided a letter from his lawyer in support, which stated that “As a Christian, Mr. Scott sincerely holds to religious beliefs that preclude him from taking the COVID vaccines.” The letter further detailed the complainant’s beliefs. Beyond that, the complainant did not submit written confirmation from any religious authority. Subsequently, CNRL suspended the complainant from work without pay for Policy non-compliance.

In Ducharme v Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., 2024 AHRC 44, the complainant requested an exemption from the Policy, and in support provided a letter from Christ’s Forgiveness Ministries signed by its General Overseer and a personal statement. Following receipt of the application, CNRL suspended the complainant without pay for failure to comply with the Policy.

The Decisions

In all four decisions, the Tribunal upheld the Director of the Alberta Human Rights Commission’s original decisions to dismiss the respective complaints. In doing so, the Tribunal relied in each case on its 2021 decision of Pelletier v 1226309 Alberta Ltd. o/a Community Natural Foods, 2021 AHRC 192 (“Pelletier”), and the following excerpt from that case:

An individual must do more than identify a particular belief, claim that it is sincerely held, and claim that it is religious in nature. This is not sufficient to assert discrimination under the Act. He must provide a sufficient objective basis to establish that the belief is a tenet of a religious faith (whether or not it is widely adopted by others of the faith), and that it is a fundamental or important part of expressing faith. [Pelletier, at para. 36]

While the Tribunal accepted in each case that the complainants had sincerely held beliefs, the Tribunal held that the information in support failed to show that, by an objective standard, vaccination was prohibited by the complainants’ faith. As such, the Tribunal determined, in each instance, that the complainants had personally made the decision to refuse vaccination not based on “religious beliefs”.

The Takeaways

These decisions and Pelletier stand for two related propositions.

First, the Tribunal, without referencing the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision of Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, 2004 SCC 47 (“Amselem”), has qualified Amselem by requiring more than simply a sincere subjective religious belief to engage protection under the Act for the protected ground of “religious belief.”

Second and related, for there to be discrimination on the ground of “religious beliefs” in Alberta, a complainant must establish that the complainant’s belief has an objective foundation that links it to a “tenet of a religious faith” or that “it is a fundamental or important part of expressing that faith.” Establishing the foregoing requires appropriate evidence beyond merely providing a personal statement, a letter from a religious centre, and/or a letter from a lawyer. The evidence must show that, by an objective standard, the mandate is prohibited by the complainant’s faith.

These decisions, and the confirming of Pelletier, provide added guidance and leeway for employers managing religious belief accommodation requests.

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