Updated EEOC Guidance Sheds Light on Religious Objections to COVID Vaccine

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Updated EEOC Guidance Sheds Light on Religious Objections to COVID Vaccine

Nov 4, 2021

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On October 28, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) updated its COVID-19 specific guidance (“Guidance”) addressing, in part, requests for religious accommodations (exemptions) from the COVID vaccine mandate. The updated guidance can be found here. The Guidance confirms the right of job applicants and current employees to request a religious accommodation from an employer’s COVID vaccine requirement where the requirement conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. The Guidance also confirms that an employer should generally assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. However, if the employer has an objective basis for questioning the sincerity or the religious nature of a particular belief, the employer may make a factual inquiry of the employee and request that they provide additional supporting information. If an employee fails to comply with their employer’s reasonable request for additional information, the Guidance states they risk losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied their request for a religious accommodation.

The Guidance makes clear that an employee’s religious belief is not invalid simply because it is unfamiliar to the employer or because the employee may not follow all of its tenets or practices. On the other hand, the updated Guidance makes clear that an employee’s social, political, economic views or personal preferences and objections to the COVID vaccine are not entitled to accommodation because they do not qualify as “religious beliefs”.

The updated Guidance also provided clarity on what qualifies as an “undue hardship” with regard to COVID vaccine mandates. An employer may properly consider impairment of workplace safety, diminished efficiency in other jobs, or other workers have to carry out the bulk of the accommodated employee’s hazardous or burdensome work as creating an “undue hardship”. Additionally, the nature of the employee’s duties, the number of employees who are fully vaccinated, how many employees and nonemployees physically enter the workplace, and the number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation is relevant factors in deciding whether an employee’s request for a religious accommodation (exemption from the COVID vaccine) is an undue hardship.

Finally, with regard to employees’ religious objections to COVID vaccine mandates, the Guidance states an employer’s obligation to provide religious accommodation, absent undue hardship, is a continuous one. However, an employer has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation (exemption) if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes or if it subsequently poses an undue hardship due to changed circumstances.

If you have any questions regarding the EEOC’s updated Guidance and its applicability to your employees’ requests for a religious accommodation from COVID vaccine mandates, please contact your Robbins Schwartz attorney.