Clarity on Duty to Accommodate Exemptions to COVID-19 Vaccinations on Religious Grounds

Published on March 10, 2022

A challenging issue that sport organizations have navigated in recent months is the implementation of mandatory vaccination policies. While vaccination requirements, along with testing and masking, are key mechanisms to provide a safe return to sport, mandatory vaccination policies are not without their criticisms and legal concerns, particularly for objections based on protected grounds under human rights legislation.  Having a strong basis for a vaccination policy is increasingly important as orders regarding mandatory COVID health and safety protocols have been or will soon be lifted by provincial and regional health authorities.

While provincial health authorities and human rights tribunals have differed in their approach to this issue, there is no question that sport organizations must provide a mechanism in their policies to consider objections to COVID-19 vaccinations based on protected grounds described in applicable human rights legislation. A central issue is what evidence must be presented by a participant to meet the threshold to trigger an organization’s duty to accommodate.

A recent decision from the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) addressed this question in the context of religious exemption[1]. The appeal arose after the organization denied the Athlete’s request for an exemption to a COVID-19 vaccination policy based on religious grounds. The denial was based on the failure of the Athlete to establish sufficient connection between their personal religious beliefs and an inability to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

The primary issue for the SDRCC was whether deeply held personal beliefs attracted the protection of human rights legislation.

The Panel held that there must be some form of objective evidence linking an individual’s stated beliefs and religious doctrine. Deeply held personal beliefs based in an individual’s subjective interpretation of religious scripture does not meet the threshold required by Canadian caselaw on the duty to accommodate.  The Athlete’s appeal was dismissed.

While provincial health authorities may lift COVID-19 mandates (or already have), including mandatory vaccination requirements over the coming months, it is anticipated that some sport organizations will continue to require that their participants provide proof of vaccination in order to participate in sanctioned activities. This decision provides some clarity on what evidence a participant must provide when seeking an exemption based on religious beliefs.

Requests for accommodations to vaccination policies must include sufficient evidence from the participants to support the reasons for their request. Sport organizations should carefully evaluate all submitted information after receiving an accommodation request. However, if a participant fails to establish a connection to a protected characteristic under human rights legislation, the sport organization has no legal obligation to accommodate the request by providing an exemption.

If you have any questions about your vaccination policy or accommodations, please contact Will Russell at wrussell@sportlaw.ca or Michelle Kropp at mkropp@sportlaw.ca.


[1] Sport Law was involved in this process, representing the Respondent/NSO. Full text of the decision is available here.

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