The Human Rights Tribunal of Alberta Gives Much Needed Guidance in the Assessment of “Religious Beliefs”

In the November 12, 2021 decision of Pelletier v 1226309 Alberta Ltd. o/a Community Natural Foods, 2021 AHRC 192 (CanLII), the Alberta Human Rights Chief of the Commission and Tribunals (the “Chief”) found that those individuals claiming discrimination on the basis of “religious beliefs” under the Alberta Human Rights Act (the “Act”) (and by extension, accommodation by reason of religious beliefs) must do more than assert a sincerely held religious belief: “They 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 that faith.”

This request for review decision is welcome relief for service providers and employers who in response to COVID-19 (and related governmental orders and health and safety concerns) have implemented health and safety mandates (e.g. mask, testing, and vaccination mandates) and who have or will face related accommodation requests.

The facts of the decision are fairly straightforward:

  • On January 31, 2021, David Pelletier (the “Complainant”) attended Community Natural Foods (the “Respondent”), and on arrival he was told that he would be required to put on a face mask in order to enter the store. He objected and said that he was medically exempt from wearing a face mask. The following day, he escalated his concern to the store’s General Manager, who confirmed that the Respondent’s new policy was that all persons over the age of 2 years old entering the store were required to wear a face mask (the “Policy”). Individuals who could not wear a face mask, for example due to medical reasons, or chose not to wear a mask were offered alternatives, such as on-line shopping, home delivery, curb-side pick-up, or the use of a personal shopper who would put together a customer’s order.
  • Thereafter, the Complainant filed a Complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) and alleged that the Respondent discriminated against him in the area of goods, services, and accommodation on the grounds of physical disability and religious beliefs in contravention of section 4 of the Act.
  • Among other allegations, the Complainant alleged that the Policy infringed his religious beliefs and that the accommodations offered by the Respondent were inadequate, unreasonable, and did not justify the infringement of his right to be free from discrimination.
  • The Commission accepted the Complaint only on the ground of disability.
  • The Respondent argued in response to the Complaint that the Policy was instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and was aimed at protecting the health and safety of staff, customers, and the general public. It submitted that the Policy was justified in the circumstances, and it provided accommodations for those who could not wear face masks.
  • The matter was investigated by one of the Commission’s human rights officers who recommended that the Complaint be dismissed. The Director of the Commission (the “Director”) agreed with the investigation recommendation and dismissed the Complaint (as permitted by section 22 of the Act).
  • Under section 26 of the Act, the Complainant requested a review of the Director’s decision (and included arguments that the Director and Respondent failed to address his claim of discrimination on the ground of religious beliefs).

In considering the request for review of the Director’s decision, the Chief found that the Policy was justified and that it provided reasonable accommodations, and thus he “… need not decide whether there [was] a reasonable basis in the information to establish a prima facie case of discrimination." However, while the decision concerned a medical exemption request, the Chief did make the following observations in respect of the question of discrimination on the ground of religious beliefs:

[36]  It is clear from all of the above that 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. They 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 that faith.

The Chief also made some helpful comments on the information requirements to demonstrate a need for medical accommodation:

[26]  I do not mean to suggest that the complainant may not have a disability that would restrict him from using a face mask. Neither do I suggest that in order to seek accommodation from a service provider or employer, an individual must first produce a comprehensive medical report. Where an individual asserts that they have a disability-related restriction, or provides a brief medical note, the service provider or employer may have a duty to inquire further. Practically, the service provider or employer, as with the respondent in this case, may simply accept the complainant’s claim at face value, and move to justifying the impugned policy and proposing accommodations. However, where an individual files a human rights complaint, and seeks to have that complaint adjudicated by a Tribunal in order to obtain monetary and other redress, they require more than the type of note provided here. Without making any finding that would apply in all cases, the Tribunal would need something more than a note that indicates the person is “medically exempt because of a medical condition.” For example, there should be information that certifies that the individual has been diagnosed with a disability, the nature of the disability, and the nature and scope of the restrictions that flow from that disability. Ideally, it should set out the accommodations the individual requires.

While this decision specifically addressed a masking policy, the Chief’s obiter analysis has wider application. The Commission’s reasoning has application to challenges to vaccine mandates and policies, and the Chief’s comments support that service providers and employers may request objective information from individuals to establish whether a belief at issue is a religious belief protected under the Act and thus requiring accommodation.

We remind service providers and employers to tread carefully when faced with religious belief matters and requests, and to individually assess each matter and request on its own facts, but at least now there is some additional guidance in Alberta.