Part of every COVID-19 vaccination requirement is a process to exempt or provide accommodations for qualified individuals with “sincerely held religious beliefs, observances or practices” that conflict with vaccination. Religious accommodation is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Accordingly, employers should treat religious exemption requests with care and consistency, as a matter of law and respect for your employees.
Requesting a religious exemption is not a free pass, though. The steps below will assist employers in handling these requests and, crucially, in offering accommodations that do not put more than a minimal burden on the company, in terms of cost, efficiency, or workplace safety.
To be consistent in your review, and to prevent any claim of bias, discrimination, or retaliation, all requests should be made using the standard form provided by the company, and they should all be assigned to one person, if possible. Ensure that this person reviews each request on a case-by-case basis.
When setting deadlines for vaccination, employers should provide sufficient time to assess exemption requests, agree to reasonable accommodations, and allow workers time to get fully vaccinated before the deadline if they must do so. You want all workers to be vaccinated or working under approved accommodations by the deadline you’ve set.
In any setting, it can be extremely difficult to determine what a person “sincerely” believes. This is especially true of a private religious view that an employee may have never previously had a reason to express.
The Equal Employment Occupation Commission (EEOC) identifies four factors that “might undermine” the sincerity of a professed belief:
However, religious beliefs may evolve throughout a person’s life. And to err is human; a person may not meet the high standard they set for themselves. Even if an employee submits what is clearly a form letter from a church or Internet source, that alone does not ‘prove’ that their belief is insincere.
To qualify for a religious exemption under the law, along with being “sincerely held,” the employee’s professed belief must also be “religious” in nature and not simply philosophical, political, or a personal preference. This, too, can be extremely difficult to determine.
The EEOC defines religion very broadly. The applicant’s faith does not have to be common or mainstream. In fact, it may be held by a few or even one individual. Even if the person belongs to a mainstream denomination, their personal beliefs don’t have to conform to the teachings of their church or religious leader to be valid. So, even though the Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, and other denominations have approved the COVID-19 vaccine, an adherent of one of these faiths is not bound by that decree. A religious view based on inaccurate information (e.g., that COVID-19 vaccines were developed from fetal stem cells) also does not disqualify a religious request. And a person does not have to provide a note from a pastor or spiritual leader to have a valid religious belief.
Your Human Resources Representative may request additional information from the employee or their spiritual leader, but be careful not to go on a ‘fishing expedition’ that could raise the risk of a claim of discrimination or intimidation.
For all of these reasons, the Human Resources Representative should defer to accepting the sincerity of the professed belief unless there is a compelling reason to question it. And your company’s decision should be based on the entirety of the application and not on one question.
Where the law grants employers latitude is in offering reasonable accommodations—or none at all if any accommodation would impose more than a minimal (de minimis) burden on the employer and thus create an “undue hardship.”
How do you know when an accommodation creates an undue hardship?
The EEOC lists six factors to evaluate:
(In some states, including California, employers must meet a higher standard.)
Employers should consider all possible reasonable accommodations, such as mask-wearing, frequent testing, working a modified shift, social distancing, remote work, or, as a last resort, reassignment to another position—as long as these accommodations do not create more than a minimal burden as described above.
You should already have the details of these policies in place when you offer this accommodation; workers should not be placed on unpaid leave or otherwise excluded from the workplace while you finalize accommodation procedures.
Your company does not have to provide the specific accommodation the employee requested if you offer them another reasonable alternative.
Even a reasonable accommodation can become an undue hardship if you receive too many accommodation requests. For example, reassigning one worker to another task, physical location, or shift might be possible; doing so for a large number of workers might disrupt your workplace efficiency, put a burden on other employees, or compromise workplace safety.
You may conclude that there are no reasonable accommodations you can offer without creating an undue hardship. But employers need to be able to demonstrate that these decisions were made on a case-by-case basis. Employers should not make “no accommodations” a blanket policy for all workers requesting a religious exemption.
Inform the employee, in writing, of your company’s decision, including any accommodation you are granting and any additional required safety precautions that go with it.
If there are no reasonable accommodations you can offer, or if the employee refuses the options you do offer, you may have no choice but to terminate their employment. These actions are not to be taken lightly and should be done in consultation with your legal counsel.
Remember: your goal is to increase workplace safety and minimize disruption. A rejected request for accommodation is another opportunity to provide education or a conversation to encourage vaccination.
Accommodations can be offered on a temporary basis. Employers may revisit accommodation requests and adjust them as necessary, especially if they begin to present an undue hardship.
DISCLAIMER: Public health guidance on COVID-19 is consistently evolving. Health Action Alliance is committed to regularly updating our materials once we've engaged public health, business and communications experts about the implications of new guidance from the public health community and effective business strategies that align with public health goals.
Health Action Alliance is committed to the health and safety of employees and communities. You should speak with your doctor or healthcare provider about whether COVID-19 vaccines are right for you.
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