How to Evaluate Religious Exemption Requests Related to COVID-19 Vaccines

Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP

Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP

As we have covered previously in EmployNews, organizations that mandate that their employees obtain vaccination against COVID-19 must consider whether employees may be entitled to an exemption due to a qualifying disability or sincerely held religious belief. Among those employers who have mandated the COVID-19 vaccine, we have received a number of questions about how to evaluate religious exemption requests. 

In recent guidance, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explains that once you know that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief prevents them from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, you must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an “undue hardship.” The EEOC cautions that employers should “ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”

However, if the employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or sincerity of a belief, then you may be justified in requesting additional information. Factors that could undermine employees’ assertions include whether they have behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief, whether the timing of the request renders it suspect, or whether there are other reasons to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons. 

If the employer is justified in seeking additional information, the EEOC has previously said that the employer can make “limited inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the employee’s claim that the belief or practice at issue is religious and sincerely held, and gives rise to the need for the accommodation.” This might include a firsthand explanation of the beliefs or third-party verification from a church official or member. 

Even if a belief is religious and sincerely held, employees are not entitled to accommodations that impose an undue hardship on the employer. An accommodation is an “undue hardship” if it would require more than a “de minimis cost,” which depends on the size and operating cost of the employer and number of individuals who will need the accommodation. Some employers, especially in the health care industry, have taken the aggressive position that permitting certain employees (such as clinical providers) to be unvaccinated would impose an undue hardship and are therefore denying all religious exemption requests. It is important to note that the merit of such determinations will depend on the exact facts at each organization.

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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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