Updated EEOC Guidance Addresses Religious Exemptions from Vaccination Mandates
On October 25, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided further insight into when companies must exempt workers from COVID-19 vaccine mandates for religious reasons.
The EEOC’s updated guidance clarified that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workers must inform employers if they intend to seek a religious exemption, but do not have to utter "magic words" such as "religious accommodation" or "Title VII" to trigger an employer's legal obligations.
The EEOC also said that employers should assume that workers' professed religious beliefs are sincere, but can seek more facts in a limited manner. Factors that could undermine an employee's credibility in claiming a sincerely held belief include:
- whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief;
- whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons;
- whether the timing of the request renders it suspect; and
- whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
A worker who fails to provide requested information risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.
The EEOC emphasized 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. However, even though the EEOC recognizes the difference between a protected religion and an unprotected social, political, economic view, or personal preference, employers should presume that nearly all religious accommodation requests are based on a protected religion. Title VII's definition of "religion" is broad and extends to nontraditional religious views, and it's dangerous to assume otherwise.
The Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a “de minimis,” or a minimal, cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship. Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also 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.
Certain common and relevant considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic include, for example, whether the employee requesting a religious accommodation to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary or group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public (especially medically vulnerable individuals). The EEOC stated that an employer may deny a request for a religious accommodation if the request would cause an “undue hardship” to the employer. Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, 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.
Finally, the EEOC’s updated guidance provided that if there is more than one reasonable accommodation that would resolve the conflict between the vaccination requirement and the sincerely held religious belief without causing an undue hardship under Title VII, the employer may choose which accommodation to offer.
The EEOC’s updated guidance may be found here.
If you have questions about this update or other related issues, please contact your Knox Law attorney or call us at 814-459-2800.
For more information, please contact Sarah Holland.