EEOC Issues New Guidance on Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

Author: Laura Friedel

On Monday, October 25, 2021, the EEOC released much-awaited guidance on how employers should handle employee requests to be exempted from vaccination requirements because of religious beliefs. The new guidance is in the new Section L of the EEOC’s Technical Assistance.  Here are some highlights:

  • Employees must tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to COVID-19 vaccination requirements because of a conflict between that requirement and their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances.  However, they don’t have to use any “magic words” in making their request.
  • Employers should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  However, if the employer has an objective basis for questioning either the nature or the sincerity of a stated belief, they can make a limited factual inquiry and seek supporting information. 
  • The definition of “religion” under Title VII includes both traditional religious beliefs and non-traditional religious beliefs, but it does not include political, social or economic views or personal preferences.  Employees may be asked to explain the nature of their belief that requires the accommodation.
  • Even if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief prohibits them from being vaccinated, the employer can still refuse to provide an exception to a vaccine mandate if it would cause the employer an “undue hardship.”  While the EEOC notes that in many cases it is possible to accommodate employees’ requests for exceptions to a vaccine mandate (for instance, by allowing work-from-home or requiring the employee to take extra measures (such as frequent testing), it also acknowledges that an employer can’t be required to bear more than a “de minimis” cost in accommodating an employee’s religious belief – for instance, if it would impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency or cause coworkers to carry the employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.  The key here is that it is a very fact-specific inquiry, so employers should analyze each request individually, rather than setting a broad rule.
  • Just because one employee is granted an exception from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate doesn’t mean that it needs to be granted to others.  Again, the key is the particular facts and circumstances, so employers should look at the employees’ duties, how many people they come into contact with, etc.
  • Even where an employer is required to provide an accommodation, it is not required to provide the particular accommodation requested by the employee.  So if there’s another accommodation available that would allow the employee to perform their duties and would not cause an undue hardship, it can be offered, even if it’s not the accommodation the employee requested.
  • Employers may revisit accommodations based on changed circumstances, but as a best practice, any changes should be discussed with the employee in advance so that alternate accommodations can be considered.

What is clear from the EEOC’s guidance is that requests for exceptions to vaccine requirements for religious reasons need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is also important to consider state and local requirements that may limit vaccine mandates.  As such, we recommend consulting with an employment attorney in responding to such requests.

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