Coronavirus (COVID-19), Learning & Development

Tips on Responding to Requests for Religious Exceptions to Vaccine Mandates

Many employers have questions about employees’ religious objections to mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies because they’re required to accommodate any sincerely held religious beliefs in opposition to the rules. Notably, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) answered questions about the possible accommodations in new technical assistance released on October 25, 2021.

Title VII Defines Religion Broadly

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines religion broadly to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief.” It isn’t limited to mainstream denominations such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam and includes nontraditional, uncommon, or even seemingly illogical or unreasonable religious beliefs.

While adherents of the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be out of luck, you should keep an open mind when presented with an accommodation request relating to an unfamiliar religion. But the definition of religion isn’t limitless: “Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not religious beliefs protected by Title VII,” according to the EEOC.

Burden Falls on Employee/Applicant to Request Exemption

The EEOC clarified the onus is on employees or applicants to request a religious exception.

Be aware, however, they aren’t required to use any “magic” words such as “religious exception” or “sincerely held religious belief.” Instead, they must let you know “there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.”

Employers Should Trust but also Can Verify

If you’re facing a major influx of religious exception requests, you may be wondering if you can challenge them. While you should typically accept a claim that an employee’s religious beliefs are sincerely held, it isn’t the final word on the matter. You can request verification from an employee or applicant when you have an objective reason to doubt:

  • The sincerity of an employee’s religious belief;
  • The religious nature of the objection to the vaccine; or
  • The individual’s explanation about how the religious beliefs conflict with the vaccine mandate.

Religious Exceptions Creating Undue Hardship May Be Denied

If a request for a religious exception to the COVID-19 vaccine causes an undue hardship for your organization, you may reject it, according to the EEOC. For example, courts have found undue hardship when the religious accommodation would (1) impair workplace safety, (2) diminish efficiency in other jobs, or (3) cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

Before denying a religious exemption request because of undue hardship, however, you should consider whether alternative accommodations, such as continuing to allow telework, would be feasible.

Bottom Line

If you implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, be prepared to evaluate requests for religious exceptions. Understanding when you can seek verification about an employee’s religious beliefs and whether a particular request can be denied based on undue hardship will be important. You can avoid potential issues by:

  • Creating processes for applicants and employees to request religious exemptions;
  • Training up a centralized team that can review and approve or deny the requests; and
  • Ensuring decisions are made as objectively and consistently as possible while documenting all actions taken in the accommodation request process.

Janell M. Stanton is an attorney with Felhaber Larson in Minneapolis. You can reach her at jstanton@felhaber.com.