As employers across the country have begun to implement COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently updated its guidance regarding religious accommodations. As a reminder, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act states that an employee may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation from a workplace requirement if the employee has a sincerely-held religious belief, practice or observance that prevents the employee from adhering to the requirement. The employer need not provide an accommodation, however, if doing so would pose an undue hardship on the employer. Increasingly, religious accommodation requests are being made by employees requesting to be excused from COVID-19 workplace vaccination or testing requirements. This trend is likely to continue as federal mandates requiring workplace vaccinations and COVID-19 testing continue.
How to gauge employee sincerity
Many employers have been asking how to evaluate the sincerity of an employee’s purported religious belief. To that end, the guidance states that although an employer should assume an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely-held religious belief, the employer is permitted to make a limited factual inquiry into the religious nature or sincerity of a belief if there is an objective basis for doing so. The EEOC lists a number of factors an employer can use to evaluate an employee’s sincerity, including:
- Whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the 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); and
- Whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
No one factor is dispositive, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.
The guidance also states that any objection to a COVID-19 vaccine or test that is based on social, political or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, does not qualify as religious beliefs under Title VII. Accordingly, employers are not required to provide an accommodation based on such an objection.
Requests that cause undue hardship
Finally, the guidance explains how an employer can show it would be an undue hardship to accommodate an employee’s request for a religious accommodation. The EEOC says an employer needs to consider the “particular facts of each situation and [demonstrate] how much cost or disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve.” For example, an employer would need to show objective evidence that the religious accommodation would “impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.” However, to show that granting a request for accommodation based on religious beliefs creates an undue hardship does not require a substantial burden. An employer need only show the request will cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business.
Consider each request individually
Employers must consider each request for a religious accommodation on a case-by-case basis. No two requests are the same, and we recommend employers consult with counsel if they are unsure about whether to grant or deny an employee’s request for accommodation.