EEOC Issues Updated Guidance Regarding Religious Exemptions to Vaccine Mandates

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On Oct. 25, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued updated guidance addressing religious exemptions from employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The updated guidance re-emphasizes that employers may require applicants and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but must provide reasonable accommodations, absent an undue hardship, for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflict with the COVID-19 vaccine. The guidance provides updated direction on some key points regarding the accommodation process:

  • Employees need not use “magic words” to request a religious exemption, but they must notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
  • Employees must “cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification” of their request when the employer has “an objective basis” for questioning the sincerity or religious nature of the belief. While the EEOC advises that an employer should generally assume a request is based on a sincerely held religious belief, employers with “an objective basis” for questioning the employee’s “sincerity” may consider several factors, such as prior inconsistent conduct and suspicious timing, to assess an employee’s credibility on an individual basis. Although, the EEOC cautions that an employee’s beliefs may change over time and that “newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices” may still be sincerely held.
  • Objections 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 and need not be accommodated.
  • Employers should consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment to another position. If there is more than one reasonable accommodation, the employer should consider the employee’s preference, but ultimately may choose which accommodation to offer.
  • Employers need not provide an accommodation that causes an “undue burden” on its operations. When determining whether an accommodation is an undue burden, employers may consider both the monetary and non-monetary burden of the conduct of the employer’s business, including the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.
  • Employers should revisit the accommodation process and consider “changing circumstances” related to both the employee and the employer.

For additional information regarding this new guidance, please contact Carly Machasic at cmachasic@clarkhill.com or your Clark Hill attorney.

The views and opinions expressed in the article represent the view of the author and not necessarily the official view of Clark Hill PLC. Nothing in this article constitutes professional legal advice nor is intended to be a substitute for professional legal advice. 

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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