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RELIGIOUS EXEMPTIONS TO COVID-19 VACCINE MANDATES

October 29, 2021

The EEOC Offers Religious Exemption Guidance

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) posted updated and expanded technical assistance addressing religious exemptions to employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates.  The EEOC provided details of its view of employer obligations under Title VII when evaluating religious objections to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.  Some larger employers have been inundated with addressing protected versus unprotected claims of mandate exemptions, while still attempting to safeguard employees’ stated religious beliefs.  The EEOC’s latest updates attempt to clarify for employers how to handle accommodation requests. Here are some highlights.

  • Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views, nor personal preferences. Therefore, objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII. 
  • The EEOC would say the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs is not usually in dispute.  The employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.”
  • Factors that, either alone or in combination, might undermine an employee’s credibility include:  
    • whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance); whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons;
    • whether the timing of the request makes it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); 
    • whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
  • The employer may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
  • An employer should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of the employee’s practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of the employee’s religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices but not others.  
  • No one factor or consideration is determinative, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.

EEOC guidance explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar.  The EEOC would prefer employers ordinarily assume an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. As stated, when an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer can request additional supporting information. In that instance, employers can make inquiries into the nature or sincerity of a purported religious belief. Employees who fail to cooperate with these employer inquiries risk losing a subsequent failure to accommodate claim.

There is some burden on employees to advise their employers a conflict exists between their religious beliefs and a vaccine requirement. The employee must provide some notice to qualify for an accommodation.

Undue Hardship

After consideration of all possible reasonable accommodations, it may not be possible to accommodate all those seeking religious exemption without undue hardship.  If an employer can demonstrate undue hardship, Title VII may not require accommodation.  

The Supreme Court has held that it is an undue hardship where the cost of accommodating an employee’s religious belief is more than a “de minimus,” or minimal, cost or hardship. For example, employers can consider economic costs, workplace safety such as the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public; if the employee works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary or group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public. The answer to the undue hardship question may be different for each employee.  An example is an administrative employee who can work at home versus a manual laborer that exclusively works indoors.

An assumption that a lot more employees could seek a religious accommodation to the vaccination requirement in the future is not evidence of undue hardship.  However, the EEOC says that the employer may consider the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees which can be a significant factor for some employers. To this factor can be added the risk that an unvaccinated employee will spread COVID-19 to other employees or the general public, the nature of an employee’s workplace, whether the employee works in a solitary or group environment, and the contact the employee has with other employees or members of the public, especially medically vulnerable individuals.

Employers should remember the law does not require them to provide the employee’s preferred accommodation but can choose the one that works best for the business.  Each request should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Conclusion

The EEOC guidance is somewhat helpful in its discussion of acceptable criteria to consider when evaluating requests for religious accommodation to COVID-19 mandates such as the right to request additional information from employees when there is an objective reason to doubt the religious nature or sincerity of a religious accommodation request. Further, the EEOC’s confirmation that employers may rely on the cumulative impact of multiple requests when conducting an undue hardship analysis is helpful. 

Jon Newman, Partner – Hite, Fanning & Honeyman L.L.P. 

 newman@hitefanning.com  - 316-265-7741

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