Faith v. Phony: How Should Employers Evaluate Employees’ Claimed “Religious” Objections to COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates?

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.

What Illinois Medical Practice Owners Need to Know About Pritzker’s Vaccination Mandate For Healthcare Workers

There is no more debate for healthcare workers in Illinois about whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (not that there should have been any debate), at least if they want to continue working. On August 26, 2021, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued Executive Order 2021-20, which mandates that almost all healthcare professionals and staff in the state must get their shots, subject to certain narrow exceptions. The Order took effect immediately. Physicians and medical practice owners need to understand the governor’s vaccination mandate for their staff to ensure compliance. Here is what physician/owners need to know:

Physicians and medical practice owners need to understand the governor’s vaccination mandate for their staff to ensure compliance. Here is what physician/owners need to know:

All “Health Care Workers” Must Receive At Least One Dose By Sept. 5

The Order requires all “Health Care Workers” to:

  • receive at least the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine series or a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine by September 5, 2021, and
  • be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 within 30 days following administration of their first dose in a two-dose vaccination series.

“Health Care Workers” and “Health Care Facilities” Covered By The Vaccine Mandate

As defined in the governor’s order, “Health Care Workers” covered by the vaccine mandate are those who:

  • are employed by, volunteer for, or contract to provide services for a Health Care Facility, or are employed by an entity that is contracted to provide services to a Health Care Facility, and
  • are in close contact (fewer than 6 feet) with other persons in the facility for more than 15 minutes at least once a week on a regular basis as determined by the Health Care Facility.

With the exception of state-owned or operated facilities, almost any facility or office that provides medical care is a “Health Care Facility” whose workers, as defined above, must get vaccinated. This includes:

  • physician offices
  • dental offices
  • ambulatory surgical treatment centers
  • hospices
  • hospitals
  • free-standing emergency centers
  • urgent care facilities
  • birth centers
  • post-surgical recovery care facilities
  • end-stage renal disease facilities
  • long-term care facilities (including skilled and intermediate long-term care facilities)
  • Specialized Mental Health Rehabilitation Facilities
  • assisted living facilities
  • supportive living facilities
  • medical assistance facilities
  • mental health centers
  • outpatient facilities
  • rehabilitation facilities
  • residential treatment facilities
  • adult day care centers

Unvaccinated Workers Barred From Premises Until Tested

As of September 5, 2021, covered Health Care Facilities must ban from their premises any Health Care Worker who has not provided proof (CDC vaccination card, photo of card, or documentation from a health care provider) that they have been fully vaccinated unless they submit to testing as follows:

  • Health Care Workers who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 must be tested for COVID-19 weekly, at a minimum.
  • Such testing for Health Care Workers who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 must be conducted on-site at the Health Care Facility or the Health Care Facility must obtain proof or confirmation from the Health Care Worker of a negative test result obtained elsewhere.

Those With Medical and Religious Exemptions From Vaccination Mandate Still Require Weekly Testing

Consistent with federal law, the Order provides medical, religious, and Americans With Disabilities Act exemptions, though any workers who qualify for an exemption must submit to weekly testing.

To qualify for a vaccination exemption, a worker must demonstrate that:

  • vaccination is medically contraindicated, including any individual who is entitled to an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or any other law applicable to a disability-related reasonable accommodation, or
  • vaccination would require the individual to violate or forgo a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. 

The Order does not specify what consequences or penalties could be imposed on medical practices for violation of the vaccine mandate, but it does authorize state agencies to “promulgate emergency rules as necessary to effectuate this Executive Order.” Accordingly, practices should establish clear policies and protocols for ensuring that their staff is fully vaccinated, as well as implement a testing program for unvaccinated workers. They should also be prepared to send home any employee who does not comply with the Order.

If you are a medical practice owner and have questions about the governor’s vaccination mandate for your employees, please give me a call at 312-236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation.