The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has updated its employer guidance for managing employee requests for religious exemptions from mandatory vaccination policies.
Released Oct. 25, the guidance provides new information relating to an employee’s right to religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
Overall, employers should carefully consider and evaluate each employee’s individual request for an exemption from any vaccine mandate.
“Employers should resist the temptation to adopt an across-the-board policy, stating that religious exemptions present an undue hardship for the company and so will not be granted,” said CBIA HR Counsel Diane Mokriski.
Title VII Protections
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to consider requests for religious accommodations, which may include “non-traditional religious beliefs.”
Employees and applicants must tell employers if they will seek an exemption to a mandatory vaccine requirement due to a “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”
If this happens, employers should generally assume a request for a religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
“Title VII requires that an employer conduct an individualized assessment of each request for religious accommodation,” explained Mokriski.
“The EEOC’s updated guidance emphasizes this point, and gives some good examples of the factors an employer should consider when evaluating an employee’s request for exemption.”
If employers have an objective basis for questioning the religious nature of a belief, an employer is justified in making a factual inquiry and requesting more information.
If an employee does not cooperate with the request for more information to verify the belief, it’s more harmful to the employee in arguing that the employer improperly denied the request.
Employers are entitled to ask how an employee’s religious beliefs conflict with a COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect social, political, economic, or personal preferences of employees who want an exemption.
The employee’s sincerity is “largely a matter of individual credibility.”
The EEOC lists factors that might undermine an employee’s credibility, which includes if the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with their claimed belief, if the timing of the request is suspect, and if the employer has another reason to believe the accommodation is not for a religious reason.
Employers should consider all possible reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs, practices, or observances without imposing an “undue hardship,” according to the EEOC.
Employers that demonstrate “undue hardship” for each position are not required to make religious accommodations.
To determine what that means, employers should tackle each case alone, and objectively.
Employers should consider whether an employee works inside or outside, in a group or on their own, and or has close contact with other employees or members of the public, including vulnerable people.
The EEOC suggests employers also look at how many employees are asking for an accommodation and what the cumulative cost would be to carry out all accommodations.
Supreme Court Ruling
In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a minimal cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship.
That can mean not only financial burdens, but also the cost of the employee’s work to the business.
In this scenario, it could be the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other employees or the public.
Other past examples include when religious accommodation would impact workplace safety, efficiency, or impact other coworkers with potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
Religious accommodations should take into account changing circumstances.
Under EEOC guidance, an employer may reconsider giving an employee religious accommodations over time.
At the same time, an employee’s religious beliefs and practices may evolve too, which could result in requests for different accommodations.
When thinking about accommodations, an employer may find there are multiple options.
Under Title VII, an employer may choose which accommodation to offer.
The employer should consider the employee’s preferred adjustment in the workplace, but is not obligated to side with the employee.