EEOC Issues New Guidance for Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

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On October 25, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC” issued new guidance regarding religious objections to workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements. The new guidance is included in the EEOC’s larger guidance document, What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws. These questions and answers collect and expand upon pre-pandemic guidance to help employers navigate issues related to COVID-19 vaccination and the interaction with federal equal employment opportunity laws. While the information does not substantially alter any previously issued guidance, the EEOC has begun to address many of the practical concerns employers have when it comes to the implementation of vaccine mandates and the legal processing of employee religious accommodation requests.

Does the employee have to tell the employer about their religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. Employees must tell their employer that they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate because it conflicts with the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs. While there are no magic words that the employee must use to request an accommodation, the employee must provide enough information to notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious belief and the vaccine mandate.

How does the EEOC define “sincerely held religious belief?”

The EEOC’s most recent guidance does not define what is considered a “sincerely held religious belief.” However, under federal law, sincerely held religious beliefs “include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”   Title VII protects religious beyond the traditional, organized religions most often recognized (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.). Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not religious beliefs protected by Title VII.

The complete EEOC guidance on religious discrimination can be found here.

Does an employer have to accept an employee’s assertion of a religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine at face value?

Generally, under Title VII, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. However, if the employer has an objective reason for questioning the employee, employers may make limited factual inquiries and seek additional information. Employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief(s) and how their religious belief(s) conflict with the vaccine requirement.  Employers should keep in mind that, while the employee’s previous inconsistent behavior may be relevant to the question of sincerity, the law recognizes that a person’s adherence or beliefs may evolve over time. Past inconsistent behavior alone is not enough to determine an employee’s objection to vaccination is not based on a sincerely held religious belief.

What if the employee’s request for religious accommodation creates an undue hardship on the employer?

Courts have found that a religious accommodation creates an undue hardship where the accommodation would impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.  If the employee’s requested accommodation would potentially cause an undue hardship, employers are required to thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, such as telework and reassignment. The EEOC advises that employers should be able to accommodate most requests without undue hardship. However, employers must consider the particular facts of the situation and demonstrate how much cost or workplace disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve, which can include the cost or burden of providing the same accommodation to multiple employees. These hardships cannot be speculative, but the employer threshold for undue burden is lower for religious accommodations than for disability-based accommodations. Employers must only show a “de minimis” or minimal cost in order to meet their burden.

Does the employer have to provide the employee’s requested accommodation?

No. The employer may offer other reasonable accommodations that would address the conflict between the sincerely held religious belief and the vaccine mandate. If there is more than one acceptable accommodation, the employer should consider the employee’s preference, but is not required to provide that particular accommodation.

Can religious accommodations be changed after implementation?

Yes. The EEOC recognizes that circumstances may change.  Employers may adjust the allowed accommodations for many reasons, including if the accommodation does not work as needed, begins to pose an undue hardship, or if the employee’s religious beliefs and practices evolve or change over time.

If the employer grants one religious accommodation based on a particular belief, does the employer have to grant all of them?

No.  Each religious accommodation request may affect different business operations or may impose a different undue hardship. Requests should be evaluated based on the specific circumstances of the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, how the religious beliefs conflict with the vaccine mandate, and the particularities of the employee’s position (i.e. does the employee work indoors or outdoors, have close contact with other employees or medically vulnerable individual).

Burr & Forman will continue to monitor recent developments regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine mandates and will keep our clients up to date on all of the applicable legal requirements. 

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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