EEOC Issues Guidance Regarding Religious Accommodations in Connection with Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Policies
Published: October 27, 2021
For what it’s worth, on October 25, 2021, the EEOC updated its guidance “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws” and added Section L entitled “Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates.” While employers have been waiting for some guidance from the EEOC on this issue given the onslaught of requests for religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the guidance doesn’t really provide any new guidance addressing the unprecedented pandemic we are all living through. Instead, the EEOC essentially repeats much of its prior guidance on how to generally address requests for religious accommodations in the workplace.
Below is a summary of the guidance contained in Section L:
- The definition of “religion” under Title VII protects non-traditional religious beliefs that may be unfamiliar to employers. While the employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because it is based on unfamiliar religious beliefs, employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief and should not assume that the employer already knows or understands it.
- Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences.
- Employees must tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of a conflict between that requirement and their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances (“religious beliefs”).
- 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 non-religious reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
- Generally, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs. If an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer may make a limited factual inquiry and seek supporting information.
- An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.
- Under Title VII, an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment. In many circumstances, it may be possible to accommodate those seeking reasonable accommodations for their religious beliefs, practices, or observances without imposing an undue hardship.
- If there is more than one reasonable accommodation that would resolve the conflict between the vaccination requirement and the sincerely held religious belief without causing an undue hardship under Title VII, the employer may choose which accommodation to offer.
- The obligation to provide religious accommodations absent undue hardship is a continuing obligation that takes into account changing circumstances. Employees’ religious beliefs and practices may evolve or change over time and may result in requests for additional or different religious accommodations. Similarly, an employer has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes, or if a provided accommodation subsequently poses an undue hardship on the employer’s operations due to changed circumstances.
- An employer needs to assess undue hardship by considering the particular facts of each situation and needs to demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve. An employer cannot rely on speculative hardships when faced with an employee’s religious objection but, rather, should rely on objective information. Relevant considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic include, for example, whether the employee requesting a religious accommodation to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary or group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public (especially medically vulnerable individuals). Another relevant consideration is the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation (i.e., the cumulative cost or burden on the employer).
- If an employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief without an “undue hardship” on its operations, then Title VII does not require the employer to provide the accommodation.
A full copy of the EEOC’s Guidance can be found at What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)