What You Need to Know About Religious Exemptions to COVID-19 Employer-Mandated Vaccinations

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released new technical assistance regarding employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccination and religious exemptions. According to the EEOC’s new technical assistance, “Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] requires employers to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances absent undue hardship. This update will help safeguard that fundamental right as employers seek to protect workers and the public from the unique threat of COVID-19.” Employees seeking to request a religious exemption, called a religious or reasonable accommodation, must inform their employer or prospective employer of their request to be exempted from a COVID-19 vaccine requirement due to a conflict between said vaccine and their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. Generally, employers should assume an employee’s request for the religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

Under Title VII, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning the sincerity of the religious belief, they employer is justified in seeking additional factual information. And an employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for supporting information, may risk losing the claim or future claims. An employer may ask how the employee’s religious beliefs conflict with the COVID-19 requirement. Should the employee’s objection not be religious in nature nor sincerely held, Title VII does not require the employer to grant the exemption to the vaccine requirement.

Furthermore, the technical assistance states, “The sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs also is not usually in dispute. The employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.” Section 12-I.A.2: Religious Discrimination (credibility and sincerity). Factors that – either alone or in combination – might undermine an employee’s credibility include (i) whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance); (ii) whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons; (iii) whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (i.e., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and (iv) whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.”

Employers are advised to thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations such as remote work, reassignment, social distancing, and mask requirements. If an employer is unable to reasonably accommodate someone with a closely held religious belief to the COVID-19 vaccine without “undue hardship” on its operations, the employer is not required to provide accommodation under Title VII. Examples of undue hardships include the impairment of workplace safety, a reduction of efficiency, or causing coworkers to share and carry the burden of work or potentially hazardous burdens.

As we continue navigating through the pandemic and post-pandemic era, many will continue having questions about vaccine mandates, employer requirements, and employee rights. If you have questions regarding vaccine requirements as an employer or your rights as an employee, please call Pacific Apex Law Group for assistance (888) 609- 8718.