EEOC Addresses Religious Vaccination Exceptions, Focusing on Info, Case-by-Case Determinations

Frank Ferreri

Washington, DC ( – With people lining up for COVID-19 vaccine boosters and employers and employees faced with looming deadlines to comply with vaccination mandates, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been active in updating its guidance its recently.

For its latest foray into the civil rights implications of rules that require workers to roll up their sleeves, the commission addressed Title VII and employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs. The following chart breaks downs the EEOC’s stance on how employees should make requests and what information employers can look for.

Topics EEOC Points of Guidance
Language of employees’ religious objections to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination Employers must tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement due to a conflict between that requirement and their sincerely held religious beliefs by asking for a “religious accommodation” or a “reasonable accommodation.”

There are no “magic words” employees need to use to make a request, but they do need to notify their employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

Contact information for employees An employer should provide employees and applicants with information about whom to contact, and the procedures to use, when they request a religious accommodation.
Employers seeking additional information Generally, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs. However, if an employer has an objective basis for question the religious nature or sincerity of a particular belief, the employer may make a limited factual inquiry and seek additional supporting information.

The definition of “religion” under Title VII protects nontraditional religious beliefs that may be unfamiliar to employers.

Factors that could undermine an employee’s credibility Employers should keep in mind that holding a religious belief is largely a matter of individual credibility. However, factors that could call that credibility into question might 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 nonreligious 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.

The EEOC cautions that an 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.

Showing that it would be an “undue hardship” to accommodate an employee’s request The EEOC stresses that under Title VII, an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment.

Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, the religious 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.

The commission points out that an employer cannot rely on speculative hardships but must consider objective information.

Certain common and relevant considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic include 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).

Requests from multiple employees Just because an employer grants one an employee an exception to a vaccination rule doesn’t mean it has to grant all requests. Instead, when an employer is assessing whether exempting an employee from getting a vaccination would impair workplace safety, it may consider, for example, the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, the number of employees who are fully vaccinated, how many employees and nonemployees physically enter the workplace, and the number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation.
Preferred vs. effective accommodations Employers do not have to provide the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there are other possible accommodations that are also effective. If more than one accommodation would be effective in eliminating the religious conflict, the employer should consider the employee’s preference but is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation preferred by the employee. If the employer denies the employee’s proposed accommodation, the employer should explain to the employee why the preferred accommodation is not being granted.
Later reconsideration of an accommodation 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.

As a best practice, an employer should discuss with the employee any concerns it has about continuing a religious accommodation before revoking it and consider whether there are alternative accommodations that would not impose an undue hardship.

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