EEOC Update: The Religious Exemption to COVID-19 Mandates

On October 25, 2021, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) posted updated and expanded technical assistance related to the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing questions about religious objections to employer COVID-19 vaccine requirements and how they interact with federal equal employment opportunity laws. The EEOC updated this information as many employers are requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of their employment.

The expanded technical assistance provides new information about how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies when an applicant or employee requests an exception from an employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement that conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.

Generally, Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Title VII requires employers to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances absent undue hardship.

The EEOC reiterated that federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to the reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII and the ADA, as we recently reported

The key updates to the technical assistance are summarized below:

  • Employees and applicants must inform their employers if they seek an exception to an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement due to a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.
  • Title VII requires employers to consider requests for religious accommodations but does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences of employees who seek exceptions to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
  • Employers that demonstrate “undue hardship” are not required to accommodate an employee’s request for a religious accommodation.

The EEOC provided some examples of reasonable accommodations or modifications that employers may need to provide to employees who are not vaccinated due to sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observance. As a reasonable accommodation, an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace might wear a face mask, work at a social distance from coworkers or non-employees, work a modified shift,  receive periodic tests for COVID-19, be provided the opportunity to telework, or accept a reassignment. 

What does this mean for employers? Employers should have a clear Reasonable Accommodation Policy that identifies the appropriate management representative employees should contact to request a reasonable accommodation for a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.  However, employers are not required to implement an accommodation that would cause an “undue hardship.”

The attorneys at York Bowman Law, LLC can assist employers with  drafting and implementing the appropriate policies.