Tuesday Insight – October 19, 2021: Handling Religious Accommodation Requests in the Wake of Increasing COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates

Oct 20, 2021

As COVID-19 vaccination mandates continue to increase across the country, employers are legally required to manage, and in some cases accommodate exemption requests.

What to Know

As COVID-19 vaccination mandates continue to increase across the country, employers are legally required to manage, and in some cases accommodate, exemption requests. Presently, there are two legally recognized exceptions from vaccination mandates: (1) Medical exemptions under the Americans with Disabilities Act; and (2) Exemptions based on sincerely held, religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or other State/local laws. Some states have equivalent and/or more expansive laws for these particular exemptions.

Medical exemptions are the clearer of the two to resolve. They are subject to objective medical documentation provided from health care providers. On the other hand, employers have reported an exponential increase in religious accommodation requests seeking exemption from vaccination. However, there is no readily verifiable basis to determine whether an employee’s religious objections to mandatory vaccinations are sincere and, thus, legally warranting a workplace accommodation. As such, employers are increasingly asking themselves how can they legally resolve accommodation requests without causing harm to the business.

Religious Accommodation Requests

The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) provides some guidance, stating that religious accommodation requests in response to a vaccination mandate requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that prevent the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine unless an accommodation poses an undue hardship to the employer. EEOC guidance further explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Accordingly, employers should engage in the process described below.

Is The Religious Objection Sincerely Held

Initially, the first step is to determine if the employee is asserting a request based on a sincerely held belief. Given the increased number of claims for religious exemption, employers are questioning the requests and should consider the following:
Employers should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for a religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.
However, if an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information. Additional documentation that an employer may request include: (1) written statements from religious leaders; (2) written religious material describing the religious belief or practice; and (3) statements and explanations from the employee that discuss the nature and tenets of their asserted beliefs and information about when, where, and how they follow the practice or belief.
Personal philosophies, personal/political beliefs about vaccination, and lifestyle choices such as veganism do not support a basis for a religious accommodation.

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