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BFV Perspectives, Corporate Matters, Covid-19 Updates, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Mar 18, 2022

New Guidance on Religious Accommodations for COVID-19 Vaccine

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently updated its guidance on how to handle religious accommodations for COVID-19 vaccinations and requests for accommodation: “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws”.

New Questions Regarding Religious Accommodations for COVID-19

The updated guidance answers six new questions from employer about religious accommodations for COVID-19 vaccination requirements:

  1. Do employees who have a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination need to tell their employer? If so, is there specific language that must be used under Title VII?
  2. Does an employer have to accept an employee’s assertion of a religious objection to a COVID-19 vaccination at face value? May the employer ask for additional information?
  3. How does an employer show that it would be an “undue hardship” to accommodate an employee’s request for religious accommodation?
  4. If an employer grants some employees a religious accommodation from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances, does it have to grant all such requests?
  5. Must an employer provide the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there are other possible accommodations that also are effective in eliminating the religious conflict and do not cause an undue hardship under Title VII?
  6. If an employer grants a religious accommodation to an employee, can the employer later reconsider it?

Answers To New Questions Regarding Religious Accommodations for COVID-19

1. Do employees who have a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination need to tell their employer? If so, is there specific language that must be used under Title VII?

Employees must tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of a conflict between that requirement and their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.</>

Under Title VII, this is called a request for a “religious accommodation” or a “reasonable accommodation.” When making the request, employees do not need to use any “magic words,” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.”  However, they need to explain the conflict and the religious basis for it.

2. Does an employer have to accept an employee’s assertion of a religious objection to a COVID-19 vaccination at face value? May the employer ask for additional information?

Generally, under Title VII, an employer should proceed on the assumption that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.

However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.  An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable requests for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief, practice, or observance risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.

The definition of “religion” under Title VII protects both traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs, practices, or observances, including those that may be unfamiliar to employers.  While the employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because it is based on unfamiliar religious beliefs, practices, or observances, employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief, practice, or observance and should not assume that the employer already knows or understands it.

Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views or personal preferences.  Thus, objections to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement that are purely based on social, political, or economic views or personal preferences, or any other nonreligious concerns (including about the possible effects of the vaccine), do not qualify as religious beliefs, practices, or observances under Title VII.

However, overlap between a religious and political view does not place it outside the scope of Title VII’s religious protections, as long as the view is part of a comprehensive religious belief system and is not simply an isolated teaching.

The sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs, practices, or observances is usually not in dispute.  The employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.”

Factors that—either alone or in combination—might undermine an employee’s credibility include:

  • 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 (for example, 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.

The employer may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious beliefs, practices, or observances conflict with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.  Although prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs—or degree of adherence—may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held.

An employer 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 an employee’s objection to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement is not religious in nature, or is not sincerely held, Title VII does not require the employer to provide an exception to the vaccination requirement as a religious accommodation.

3. How does an employer show that it would be an “undue hardship” to accommodate an employee’s request for religious accommodation?

If an employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief, practice, or observance without an “undue hardship” on its operations, then Title VII does not require the employer to provide the accommodation.  42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j).

The Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a “de minimis,” or a minimal, cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship.  Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business—including, in this instance, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.

Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, the religious accommodation would violate federal law, impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

An employer will need to assess undue hardship by considering the particular facts of each situation and will need to demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve.

An employer cannot rely on speculative or hypothetical hardship when faced with an employee’s religious objection but, rather, should rely on objective information.  Certain common and relevant considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic include, for example, whether the employee requesting a religious accommodation to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary or group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public (especially medically vulnerable individuals).

Another relevant consideration is the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation, i.e., the cumulative cost or burden on the employer.

4. If an employer grants some employees a religious accommodation from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances, does it have to grant all such requests?

No. The determination of whether a particular proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business depends on its specific factual context.

When an employer is assessing whether exempting employees from getting a vaccination would impair workplace safety, it may consider, for example:

  • Type of workplace;
  • Nature of the employees’ duties;
  • Location in which the employees must or can perform their duties;
  • Number of employees who are fully vaccinated;
  • How many employees and nonemployees physically enter the workplace; and
  • Number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation.

A mere assumption that many more employees might seek a religious accommodation—or the same accommodation—to the vaccination requirement in the future is not evidence of undue hardship, but the employer may consider the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees.

5. Must an employer provide the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there are other possible accommodations that also are effective in eliminating the religious conflict and do not cause an undue hardship under Title VII?

If there is more than one reasonable accommodation that would resolve the conflict between the vaccination requirement and the sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance without causing an undue hardship under Title VII, the employer may choose which accommodation to offer.

If more than one accommodation would be effective in eliminating the religious conflict, the employer should consider the employee’s preference but is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation preferred by the employee.

However, an employer’s proposed accommodation will not be “reasonable” if the accommodation requires the employee to accept a reduction in pay or some other loss of a benefit or privilege of employment (for example, if unpaid leave is the employer’s proposed accommodation) and there is a reasonable alternative accommodation that does not require that and would not impose undue hardship on the employer’s business. If the employer denies the employee’s proposed accommodation, the employer should explain to the employee why the preferred accommodation is not being granted.

An employer should consider all possible alternatives to determine whether exempting an employee from a vaccination requirement would impose an undue hardship.  Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation is available that would not pose an undue hardship.

6. If an employer grants a religious accommodation to an employee, can the employer later reconsider it?

The obligation to provide religious accommodations absent undue hardship is a continuing obligation that allows for changing circumstances. Employees sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances may evolve or change over time and may result in requests for additional or different religious accommodations.

Similarly, an employer has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes, or if a provided accommodation subsequently poses an undue hardship on the employer’s operations due to changed circumstances.

Employers must consider whether there are alternative accommodations that would not impose an undue hardship.  As a best practice, an employer should discuss with the employee any concerns it has about continuing a religious accommodation before revoking it.

EEOC Accommodation Request Form

The EEOC also made its own internal accommodation request form available to the public. The EEOC’s internal forms typically are not made public, however, it included the form given the extraordinary circumstances facing employers and employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conclusion
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the EEOC’s guidance has provided helpful information to employers on how to handle complex legal challenges involving COVID-19.  The most recent update expands the EEOC’s explanation on how to deal with religious accommodations for COVID-19.  A few of the key takeaways are:

  • When making the request, employees do not need to use any “magic words,” such as “religious accommodation.”
  • If an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.
  • The employer may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious beliefs, practices, or observances conflict with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
  • The definition of “religion” under Title VII protects both traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs, practices, or observances, including those that may be unfamiliar to employers.
  • Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views or personal preferences.
  • If an employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief without an “undue hardship” on its operations, then Title VII does not require the employer to provide the accommodation. Undue hardship may exist where the religious accommodation would violate federal law, impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
  • An employer does not have to grant all requests for religious accommodation. The employer may consider the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees.
  • If more than one accommodation would be effective in eliminating the religious conflict, the employer should consider the employee’s preference but is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation preferred by the employee.
  • An accommodation is not necessarily permanent. An employer has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes, or if a provided accommodation subsequently poses an undue hardship on the employer’s operations due to changed circumstances.

As always, please let me know if I can help.

BFV Perspectives, Corporate Matters, Covid-19 Updates, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Mar 18, 2022
Kenneth N. Winkler
Kenneth N. Winkler

Kenneth Winklera shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn, helps employers navigate the employment laws and regulations that govern the workplace.