EEOC Guidance on Religious Exceptions to COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates

The EEOC provided some answers on October 25, 2021, on questions concerning religious objections to mandatory vaccination policies.  Employers choosing to implement COVID-19 vaccination programs need to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious objection to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.  In the EEOC’s recent release of technical assistance on October 25, 2021, we have some answers.

Title VII’s Broad Definition of Religion

Title VII defines religion broadly to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief.”  Religion is not limited to mainstream denominations such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam, and includes nontraditional, uncommon, or even seemingly illogical or unreasonable religious beliefs.  While adherents of the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be out of luck, employers should keep an open mind when presented with an accommodation request relating to an unfamiliar religion.  However, the definition of religion is not limitless.  “Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not religious beliefs protected by Title VII.”

The Burden is on the Employee/Applicant to Request an Exception

The EEOC clarified that the onus is on the employee or applicant to request a religious exception, though employers should be aware that employees are not required to use any “magic” words such as “religious exception” or “sincerely held religious belief”.  Instead, employees must “notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.”

Employers Should Trust, But Can Verify

Employers facing a major influx in religious exception requests may be wondering whether they can challenge these requests.  While employers should typically accept an employee’s claim that their religious beliefs are sincerely held, that is not the final word on the matter.  Employers can request verification from an employee or applicant when it has an objective reason to doubt an employee’s sincerity of the religious belief, the religious nature of the objection to the vaccine, or an employee’s explanation of how their religious beliefs conflict with the vaccine mandate.

Religious Exceptions That Create an Undue Hardship May be Denied

The EEOC clarified that if a request for religious exception to the vaccine causes an undue hardship on the employers’ operations, the request may be denied.  Some examples of situations where courts have found undue hardship include when 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.  However, before an employer denies an exception request due to undue hardship, the company should consider whether alternative accommodations, such as continuing to allow telework, would be feasible.

Bottom Line

Employers who implement vaccination mandates must be prepared to evaluate requests for religious exceptions.  Understanding when an employer can seek verification relating to an employee’s religious beliefs and whether a particular request can be denied based on undue hardship will be important.  Employers can avoid potential issues by creating processes for applicants and employees to request religious exceptions, training up a centralized team who can review and approve or deny the requests, and ensuring decisions are made as objectively and consistently as possible while documenting all actions taken in the accommodation request process.