COVID-19 and Religious Accommodations: New Guidance from the EEOC

Throughout the COVID pandemic,  employers have encountered difficulty balancing safety concerns with employee requests for religious exemptions (or accommodations) from the COVID vaccine.  Due to these  continued challenges, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), released guidance on March  1, 2022 that addresses  common questions related to religious objections to vaccinations in the workplace.

Do employees who have a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination need to tell their employer? Yes. If so, is there specific language that must be used under Title VII?  No. When employees have a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, they do not need to use any magic words. The employees must explain the conflict and the religious basis for it. The same principles apply if employees have a religious conflict with getting a particular vaccine and wish to wait until an alternative version or specific brand of COVID-19 vaccine is available to them. 

Does an employer have to accept an employee’s assertion at face value, or may the employer ask for additional information?   Generally, employers should proceed on the assumption that a request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. “However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.” Under Title VII, the definition of “religion” protects both traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs, practices, and observances. Employers should not deny requests just because they are unfamiliar.

More importantly, the EEOC noted that the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs, practices, or observances is usually not in dispute.  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 nonreligious reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (for example, 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.

Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views or personal preferences.  Thus, objections to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement that are purely based on social, political, or economic views or personal preferences, or any other nonreligious concerns (including about the possible effects of the vaccine), do not qualify as religious beliefs, practices, or observances under Title VII.  

The EEOC added, “An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable requests for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief, practice or observance risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.”

How does an employer show that accommodating an employee’s request would cause an undue hardship? Under Title VII, an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment. To show an “undue hardship,” Courts have found one exists where a religious accommodation would violate federal law, impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. However, the Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a “de minimis” cost to accommodate a request for a religious exemption constitutes an undue hardship.

If an employer grants some employees a religious accommodation from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances, does it have to grant all such requests?  No.  The determination of whether a proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship depends on specific factual context.  Employers may consider, for example, the type of workplace, the nature of the employees’ duties, the location in which the employees must or can perform their 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.  

Of note, a mere assumption that many more employees might seek a religious accommodation—or the same accommodation—to the vaccination requirement in the future is not evidence of undue hardship, but the employer may consider the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees.  

Must an employer provide the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there are other possible accommodations that also are effective in eliminating the religious conflict and do not cause an undue hardship under Title VII? No. Employers may choose which accommodation to offer when there is more than one that would resolve the conflict. However, an accommodation is no longer reasonable if it requires an employee to accept a reduction in pay or some other loss of a benefit or privilege of employment (and there is another reasonable alternative that does not require the loss or impose an undue hardship on the business).

If an employer grants a religious accommodation to an employee, can the employer later reconsider it? Yes.  The employer’s obligation to provide religious accommodations is a continuing obligation that may change overtime. Employers may discontinue accommodations if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes or if the accommodation starts to present an undue hardship on the company. Employers should discuss their concerns with an employee before revoking any religious accommodation.

What does this mean for employers ?

Employers should ensure that the analysis of requests for religious exemptions (accommodations)  from vaccine mandates comport with updated EEOC guidance to avoid liability.

Analyzing a request for an accommodation should not be undertaken without consultation with counsel. Employers can seek counsel by contacting the attorneys at York Bowman Law, LLC.