Diversity & Inclusion

Faithfully expecting: religious accommodations and employer-mandated vaccination policies

An “informal discussion letter” from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) indicates that employers should carefully weigh religious objections by pregnant employees, specifically in the context of employer-mandated vaccination policies.


In February 2012, a healthcare provider wrote the EEOC requesting a formal interpretation of the application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, to healthcare workers’ requests for exemption from employer-mandated vaccinations. The healthcare provider specifically asked whether hospitals must accommodate their employees’ religious objections to mandatory vaccinations and whether an accommodation must be considered for a pregnant worker who refuses to take a vaccine. The EEOC didn’t issue any formal guidelines, but it did release an informal advisory letter. We want to ensure you are aware of the agency’s position on the matter.

Scope of religious beliefs

The EEOC and courts have consistently found that Title VII defines “religion” very broadly. The term includes not only traditional religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but also religions that are uncommon, not part of a formal sect, or seem unreasonable to others. Under Title VII, an employee’s belief can be “religious” even if no one else recognizes his conviction or practice. Religious beliefs include ethical values (i.e., what is right and wrong) that are held with the strength of traditional religious views, regardless of whether the belief includes faith in God. Courts generally resolve doubts about an individual’s beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious.

Beliefs aren’t protected simply because they are strongly held. Rather, religious beliefs typically concern “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.” Personal preferences, political opinions, and economic philosophies are not religious beliefs protected by Title VII. Nevertheless, a particular practice might be engaged in by one person for religious reasons and by another for purely secular reasons―dietary restrictions or tattoos, for example. Thus, whether a practice is religious depends on the employee’s motivation.

Seeking supporting information

Ordinarily, you should assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. If you have an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief or practice, you may seek additional supporting information.

An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for proof of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing a future claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation. Conversely, an employer that requests unnecessary or excessive corroborating evidence risks being held liable for denying a reasonable accommodation request and having its actions challenged as retaliatory or part of a pattern of harassment.

‘Undue hardship’ and imposing alternative measures

It’s important to note that under Title VII, you are required to grant only religious accommodation requests that do not pose an “undue hardship” on or require “more than [minimal] cost” to business operations. The EEOC notes that in the context of a healthcare provider, an undue hardship includes an assessment of the public risk posed at a particular time, the availability of effective alternative means of infection control, and the number of employees who actually request an accommodation.

An employer that grants a religious accommodation that excuses a healthcare worker from a mandatory vaccination may impose additional infection control practices on the worker, such as wearing a mask. You should keep in mind that you may impose such practices only for legitimate nondiscriminatory and nonretaliatory reasons. Whether an employer’s motivation for imposing additional infection control measures is discriminatory or retaliatory turns on the facts of each case.

Potential for pregnancy bias

While the EEOC is unaware of any policy guidelines or case law that applies to the healthcare provider’s inquiry, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination in employment based on pregnancy. A pregnant employee might allege disparate treatment under the PDA or Title VII if an employer refused to excuse her from a vaccination requirement but allowed nonpregnant or male employees to be excused from the requirement on other grounds such as a medical condition. Of course, the outcome of the claim would turn on the facts of the particular case. You should note that impairments resulting from pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia may be disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended.

The informal discussion letter was posted on the EEOC’s website on March 5 and is available at www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/foia/letters/2012/religious_accommodation.html.

Bottom line

While the EEOC notes in the posted letter that its response is an informal discussion of the issues and shouldn’t be considered an official opinion, prudent employers would be well advised to be mindful of the EEOC’s standards and analyses when (1) evaluating a pregnant employee’s request for religious accommodation and (2) imposing alternative measures on an employee after a request for a religious accommodation for an employer-mandated vaccination is granted.

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