EEOC Updates Guidance On Religious Objections To COVID Vaccine

L.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? (10/25/21)

Generally, under Title VII, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  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 request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.  See generally Section 12-IV.A.2: Religious Discrimination.

The definition of “religion” under Title VII protects nontraditional religious beliefs 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, employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief and should not assume that the employer already knows or understands it.  By contrast, Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences.  Section 12-I.A.1: Religious Discrimination (definition of religion).  Thus, objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.

The sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs also is not usually in dispute.  The employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.”  Section 12-I.A.2: Religious Discrimination (credibility and sincerity).  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 (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.

The employer may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts 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.

When 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.

 

Source: What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission