New EEOC Guidance Tackles Faith-Based Vax Exemptions

The question of how employers handle applications for religious exemptions to vaccine requirements has become more prevalent throughout the country. In new guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), federal anti-discrimination law permits employers to scrutinize exemption requests rooted in political or personal objections. The guidance states this while reiterating that businesses should presume that workers’ faith-based requests for exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination requirements are legitimate.

EEOC chair Charlotte Burrows said in a statement that the latest update provides employers, workers, and job-seekers with “important assistance when navigating vaccine-related religious accommodation requests.” “Title VII requires employers to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances absent undue hardship,” Burrows said. “This update will help safeguard that fundamental right as employers seek to protect workers and the public from the unique threat of COVID-19.”

The EEOC appended its running COVID-19 pandemic guidance with a new section explaining how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies when workers cite religious objections to employers’ vaccination mandates. The law prohibits workplace religious bias and allows employees and job applicants to request accommodations when job-related mandates conflict with their religious beliefs and practices. However, employees must “sincerely hold” any religious beliefs and practices to obligate an employer under Title VII to exempt the worker from the inoculation policy as a religious accommodation.

Title VII also protects workers who have “nontraditional religious beliefs” from bias in the workplace. However, the EEOC stressed that “. . . 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.” 

The EEOC has made a series of updates since 2020 to an assistance document intended to answer questions related to the response of employers to the COVID-19 pandemic. The EEOC addressed mandatory workplace vaccination programs and vaccine incentives that employers may offer their workers in previous updates.

The religious accommodation framework outlined in the guidance’s latest update effectually states that employers should generally presume that workers’ requests for religious accommodations are based on sincerely held religious beliefs. However, Title VII allows any business enterprise that has an “objective basis” for doubting either the “religious nature or the sincerity” of a worker’s stated religious belief to conduct “a limited factual inquiry.” This inquiry may seek additional information to verify the legitimacy of the employee’s request for accommodation.

“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 said in the most recent guidance update.

The guidance sets forth a series of factors that could undermine a worker’s assertion that a stated religious belief is factually sincere. These factors include any occasions where a worker behaved in contradiction to the stated religious belief or if a worker’s religious accommodation request came soon after the individual made a similar request for a secular reason. However, the agency cautioned that workers’ religious practices might change over time, so employers must carefully consider this factor.

“Although prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs — or degree of adherence — may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held,” the EEOC said. “An employer should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of the employee’s practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of the employee’s religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices but not others.”

Also, in the EEOC’s updated guidance, the commission said that workers who object to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds are obligated to inform their employers that they desire a vaccine requirement exemption. Additionally, the EEOC clearly stated that employers can reconsider a religious accommodation it has already granted, pointing out that the process “is a continuing obligation that takes into account changing circumstances.”

While workers do not need to mention the term “religious accommodation specifically,” they must minimally make it clear that the employer’s policy conflicts with their religious beliefs, according to the EEOC.

“As a best practice, an employer should provide employees and applicants with information about whom to contact, and the procedures (if any) to use, to request a religious accommodation,” the EEOC advised in its updated guidance.

The commission also offered advice for employers who need to prove that an “undue hardship” exists, thus preventing them from accommodating workers with faith-based objections. The agency recommended that employers first consider “all possible reasonable accommodations,” like working from home. However, if no reasonable accommodation is possible, employers may consider workplace safety risks for other employees or the public in their undue hardship analysis.

“An employer cannot rely on speculative hardships when faced with an employee’s religious objection but, rather, should rely on objective information” like whether employees work outdoors, work in groups or have close contact with members of the public, the EEOC said.

“As a best practice, an employer should discuss with the employee any concerns it has about continuing a religious accommodation before revoking it and consider whether there are alternative accommodations that would not impose an undue hardship,” the EEOC said.

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