EEOC Issues Updated Guidance on Religious Accommodations Concerning Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccine Policies

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has announced updates to its technical guidance on issues related to COVID-19, including religious accommodations to mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies. In addition, the guidance discusses how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may apply when a job applicant or employee requests an exemption from an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. Title VII protects job applicants and employees from employment discrimination based on religion, as well as based on other protected grounds.

Individuals Must Request Religious Accommodations to COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements

A job applicant or employee must request an employer for a religious or reasonable accommodation to its vaccine requirement due to a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. These individuals should notify their employer of the conflict between their religious beliefs and the policy. Furthermore, the employer should have a transparent process for requesting an accommodation.

Evaluating Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

Employers generally should assume that requests for religious accommodations are due to sincerely held religious beliefs. However, suppose they have an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or the sincerity of the belief at issue. In that case, the employer can make a limited factual inquiry and request supporting documentation from the individual. If the individual refuses to cooperate, they risk being unable to challenge any denial of their request for accommodation by the employer.

Likewise, employers must consider traditional religious beliefs and nontraditional religious beliefs or those that are foreign to them. Employers must consider these requests for accommodation, but they need not consider any requests for accommodation based on social, economic, or political views, personal preferences, or other nonreligious concerns. Employers also do not have to allow accommodations based on religious beliefs that are not “sincerely held.” In evaluating whether a religious belief is sincerely held, the employer must look at a combination of factors, including the general practices of the individual, their adherence to common practice, or deviations from the commonly followed practices of their religion.

Evaluating Undue Hardship

Furthermore, employers do not have to provide the requested accommodation if it would cause them undue hardship. Safety in the workplace or to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a consideration that employers must consider when evaluating whether an accommodation would cause undue hardship, along with the monetary costs. The level of hardship may differ according to the type of job at issue; while telecommuting employees can fulfill some jobs, for instance, others cannot. Other relevant considerations may include:

  • Whether an employee works indoors or outdoors
  • Whether an employee works close to other employees or individually
  • Whether an employee routinely works with members of the public, some or all of whom may be medically vulnerable
  • The number of employees who are seeking similar exemptions

Other Considerations in Evaluating a Request for Accommodation

Employers who grant a request for accommodation based on sincerely held religious beliefs for one employee are not necessarily required to grant those requests for all employees. The employer must consider each request on a case-by-case basis.

The employer also is not required to grant an employee’s preferred accommodation request. However, if more than one reasonable accommodation is available, the employer can choose whichever is preferable or causes less hardship.

Finally, the employer can revoke or discontinue a reasonable accommodation later as circumstances change, such as if an undue hardship has arisen with the reasonable accommodation that did not previously exist.

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