Questioning the legitimacy of someone’s faith or religious beliefs is a tricky business. But employers across the country, from major corporations to local governments, have to deal with such deeply personal inquiries with increasing frequency as many employees and job candidates opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates seek “religious exemptions” from having to get the shot.
Recognizing the uncomfortable and somewhat perilous task faced by employers when such claims arise, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released new guidance on October 25, 2021, specifically addressing how employers should evaluate requests for religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. The new Section L of the EEOC’s omnibus COVID-19 page supplements previous direction about employer obligations regarding claimed religious objections to vaccinations.
The Basis for Religious Exemption Claims
The basis for religious exemptions to employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates is found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII requires an employer, upon receiving notice, to reasonably accommodate an employee whose “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance” conflicts with a job requirement, such as a company-wide vaccination mandate, unless providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship for the employer.
Accordingly, the threshold question for employers when an employee advises them of their request for a “religious accommodation” to an employer COVID-19 vaccine requirement is determining whether the objection to getting the shot is, in fact, based on a “sincerely held religious belief.”
What Is a “Religious Belief”?
The definition of “religion” under Title VII not only includes widely recognized faiths like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism, but it also protects nontraditional religious beliefs that may be unfamiliar to employers. However, as the EEOC clarifies, “social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not religious beliefs protected by Title VII.”
Therefore, employers are free to disregard exemption requests premised on concerns about “personal freedom,” the underlying legal legitimacy of vaccine mandates, or conspiracy-laden claims about microchips, magnetism, or other disinformation about COVID vaccines.
How To Determine Whether an Employee’s Religious Belief Is “Sincerely Held”
As the EEOC notes, “Whether or not a religious belief is sincerely held by an applicant or employee is rarely at issue in many types of Title VII religious claims.” But the reluctance of many workers to get vaccinated or their refusal to comply with employer or government vaccine mandates has made this very much an issue.
That’s because many employees who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for non-religious reasons are trying to incincerely and improperly shoehorn those objections into Title VII’s religious protections. As the New York Times recently reported, “Vaccine-resistant workers are sharing tips online for requesting exemptions to the requirements on religious grounds; others are submitting letters from far-flung religious authorities who have advertised their willingness to help.”
This puts employers in the delicate position of questioning the sincerity of an employee’s faith and religion. According to the EEOC, an employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.” When evaluating that credibility, the EEOC says that employers can consider the following “factors that – either alone or in combination – might undermine an employee’s credibility”:
- Whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance).
- 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 (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons).
- Whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the employee is not seeking the accommodation for religious reasons.
Employers can ask an employee to explain how their claimed religious beliefs conflict with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The EEOC advises that employers:
“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. No one factor or consideration is determinative, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.”
If you are a business owner and have questions about how to address religious or other objections to your company’s COVID-19 vaccination policies, please give me a call at 312-236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation.