6 takeaways from EEOC guidance on religious vaccine exemptions

The government has released details about how to handle employees' requests for accommodation based on their religious beliefs.
By: | October 28, 2021

Employers are still awaiting the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance on President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for private companies—but they did receive more information this week on how to handle religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Monday expanded its guidance on religious exemptions to employer vaccine mandates under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here are some highlights.

6 takeaways from EEOC guidance on religious vaccine exemptions

Employees have to tell their employer if they have a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. Workers must inform employers if they intend to seek a religious exemption but do not have to use “magic words, such as ‘religious accommodation’ or ‘Title VII’ ” to trigger an employer’s legal obligations. The EEOC also tells employers it is best practice to provide employees and applicants with information about whom to contact, and the procedures to use, to request a religious accommodation.

Related: Everything HR needs to know about Biden’s vaccine mandate

Employers should generally believe an employee’s request is sincere. Under Title VII, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is “based on sincerely held religious beliefs.” The EEOC states that the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious belief is usually not a matter for dispute, as it is “generally presumed or easily established.” The agency’s general position is that employers and courts “are not and should not be in the business of deciding whether a person holds religious beliefs for the ‘proper’ reasons.”

But employers can ask workers for more information. Employers may ask for more information from employees seeking a religious accommodation, such as an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. And while employers should generally presume that a worker’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, an employer that has an objective reason for doubting whether the belief is religious in nature or sincerely held may make a “limited factual inquiry” that seeks additional information to verify the legitimacy of the request. An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation, the EEOC says.

Related: Legal experts: Don’t delay in prepping for Biden vaccine mandate

Accommodations don’t apply to workers’ personal or political beliefs. In the guidance, the EEOC says that while Title VII requires employers to consider requests for religious accommodations, the law does not protect workers’ social and political views or personal preferences. While Title VII shields workers from bias based on religious beliefs, including “nontraditional religious beliefs,” the EEOC said that the law “does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences … Thus, objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political or personal preferences or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as ‘religious beliefs’ under Title VII.”

Explanation of undue hardships. The EEOC reiterated that employers are not required to provide an accommodation that would pose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business. In the context of religious accommodation under Title VII, that undue hardship means anything more than a “de minimis” cost. According to the guidance, these costs include both monetary costs and “the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business—including, in this instance, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.” The EEOC also says that an employer cannot rely on “speculative hardships” to deny an accommodation but must rely “on objective information,” considering factors such as whether the employee making the request works indoors or outdoors, in a solitary or group setting, or has close contact with others, especially “medically vulnerable individuals.”

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Related:Can religious beliefs get employees out of vaccine mandates?

Employers can discontinue a previously granted religious accommodation. Even if an employer grants a religious accommodation to an employee, it isn’t set in stone. The EEOC says an employer may be able to discontinue an accommodation if the accommodation is no longer used for religious purposes or the accommodation subsequently imposes more than a de minimis cost.

The complete guidance can be found here.

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.