On October 25th and 28th the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) expanded their technical guidance relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and provided additional information on religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as they pertain to vaccination mandates.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act generally requires employers to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances absent undue hardship. However, unlike accommodations for physical or mental disabilities, the laws around religious accommodations are much less clear. The EEOC guidance clarifies how employers should assess and process religious accommodation requests.
The guidance clarifies that the onus is on the employee to request a religious accommodation to an employer’s vaccination policy. There are no “magic words” an employee must use to request a religious accommodation. An employee simply needs to inform their employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
Generally, once an employee makes a religious accommodation request, it should be assumed to be based on a sincerely held religious belief. However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning the sincerity of the accommodation request, then the employer may make a limited factual inquiry and seek additional supporting information. The guidance outlines several objective factors which could undermine an employee’s credibility including whether the employee has acted inconsistent with their professed belief, 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, and whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons. In seeking additional information, employers may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
However, it is important to note that no one factor is determinative as to the validity of a religious accommodation request, so employers must evaluate such requests on a case-by-case basis. Finally, the guidance clarifies that religious accommodations only need to be granted for sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances, and not for social, political, personal, or other nonreligious objections.
The attorneys at Fishel Downey regularly advise employers on religious accommodation requests and other COVID-19 employment issues. If you have a specific question or scenario, and would like assistance, contact one of the attorneys at Fishel Downey Albrecht & Riepenhoff LLP at 614-221-1216.