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November 2, 2021

Legal Update
Christine M. Netski

Genuine or Insincere? How Employers Should Evaluate Claimed “Religious” Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

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Questioning the legitimacy of someone’s faith or religious beliefs is a tricky business. But employers across the country must 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 difficult, confusing, and somewhat perilous task employers face 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 requirements. The new Section L of the EEOC’s omnibus COVID-19 page supplements previous guidance about religious objections to vaccinations and employers’ obligations.

The Basis for Religious Exemption Claims and Need for Reasonable Accommodations 

The basis for religious exemptions to employer vaccine mandates is found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Once given notice, Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee whose “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance” conflicts with a work requirement, such as a company-wide vaccine mandate, unless providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship.

As such, the threshold question for employers upon being notified of an employee’s request for a “religious accommodation” exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate is determining whether the request 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, and Hinduism, but it also encompasses nontraditional religious beliefs that may be unfamiliar to employers. As the EEOC clarifies, however, Title VII’s protections for religious beliefs do not apply to “social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences.” Accordingly, employers can disregard exemption requests premised on concerns about “personal freedom,” the underlying legal legitimacy of vaccine mandates, or conspiracy-laden claims about COVID vaccines.

Determining Whether a 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 the vaccine or their refusal to comply with employer or government vaccine mandates has made this inquiry very much an issue.

That’s because many people who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for nonreligious reasons are attempting to shoehorn their objections insincerely and improperly into Title VII’s religious protections. As recently reported in The New York Times: “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 uncomfortable position of questioning the sincerity of an employee’s articulated beliefs. 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 advises that employers may consider the following “factors that – either alone or in combination – might undermine an employee’s credibility”:

Employers may ask employees to explain how their claimed religious beliefs conflict with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The EEOC cautions, however, 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.”

Employee Must Make a Request For Religious Accommodation

Employees who wish to qualify for a religious exemption from their employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements because of a claimed conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs must notify their employer of their request for an accommodation. While the EEOC makes clear that there are no “magic words” that need to be contained in such a notice, employees must explicitly advise the employer that their objection is based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. To assist both employers and employees, the EEOC has posted a template form it uses when its employees seek a religious exemption from vaccination.

If you have questions about religious exemption claims to employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates, please contact one of the employment law attorneys at Sugarman Rogers.