UPDATED* EEOC Addresses Religious Exemptions from Vaccine Mandates
By Paula Jackson
October 26, 2021 (revised November 4, 2021)
The EEOC recently posted guidance detailing how employers should handle requests for religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. First, employers should provide employees (and job applicants) with information about how to make such a request. Then, the employer should evaluate that request on an individual basis as long as the employee notifies the employer in some manner that its vaccine requirement conflicts with the employee’s sincere religious (not just personal, social, or political) belief.
Employers should generally assume that the request is based on a sincerely-held religious belief. However, according to the EEOC, the employer may request limited information about that belief’s sincerity or religious nature if reasonable under the circumstances. For example, the employer may make a limited inquiry into the belief in question if it has information to the contrary or the employee has previously acted inconsistently with that belief. Yet, the employer should keep in mind that employee beliefs (or the degree of adherence to those beliefs) may change over time and that those changes (if sincere) should not foreclose an exemption. The EEOC also warns that “[a]n 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.” Nevertheless, an employer may ask the employee to explain how his religious belief conflicts with the vaccine requirement.
Under the EEOC’s guidance, an employer may deny a religious exemption request if it would pose an “undue hardship” (or more than minimal cost) to its business. This is true only if the business has considered all potential reasonable ways to accommodate the employee’s belief, including reassignment and telework. Employers must evaluate this “hardship” using objective (not speculative) information about the individual circumstances as it relates to that employee’s particular job within the business and “demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve.” Keep in mind that this is a different “undue hardship” standard than the standard for “undue hardship” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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“Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates,” https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws, Section L (revised Oct. 25, 2021). The EEOC has made its own Religious Accommodation Request Form available to employers as an example. See https://www.eeoc.gov/sites/default/files/2021-10/EEOC%20Religious%20Accommodation%20Request%20Form%20-%20for%20web.pdf.  Id.  Id.