EEOC cautions employers on questioning the sincerity of a religious belief when a COVID accommodation is requested

October 31, 2021

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently updated its coronavirus technical assistance guidance, providing advice on how to respond to religious objections to employer vaccine mandates.

The guidance provides some additional clarity that employers and employees may find helpful in evaluating the accommodation requests.

Applicants and employees may request a religious exemption or reasonable accommodation from the employer requirements — such as for vaccine mandates — if it conflicts with an individual’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances.

Employees seeking a religious accommodation must ask for it, but according to the EEOC, workers do not need to use any “magic words” such as “religious accommodation.”

The employee need only “notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.”

Employers “should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.”

If an employer has an “objective basis” to question the religious nature or sincerity of the belief, the organization can make a limited factual inquiry and seek 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,” it said.

The definition of religion under Title VII is broad and protects nontraditional religious beliefs, so employers should not assume a request is invalid simply because the employer is unfamiliar with a particular religion. Employees can be asked to explain the religious nature of the belief, which may be important because Title VII does not protect social, political or economic views or personal preferences.

“The sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs also is not usually in dispute” and determining the sincerity is “largely a matter of individual credibility,” the EEOC said.

In evaluating whether the employee’s religious belief is sincere, the EEOC advises employers to consider a variety of factors, including:

  • whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (though the EEOC states employees need not be scrupulous in their observance);
  • whether the accommodation is a particularly desirable benefit likely sought for non-religious reasons (which may be a factor in the vaccine mandate exemption requests);
  • whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (for example, if an employee makes a request for religious reasons after making an earlier request for the same benefit for secular reasons); and
  • whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

Employers are cautioned from denying an accommodation based on prior inconsistent conduct relevant to the issue of sincerity since the degree of adherence to religion may change over time.

“An employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held,” the EEOC said. “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.”

Upon receiving an accommodation request, employers should get creative, and consider options like telework or reassignment. Accommodations should be granted unless doing so poses an undue hardship.

For religious accommodations, undue hardship is defined as creating more than a “de minimis,” or a minimal cost for the accommodation.

“Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business — including, in this instance, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public,” the EEOC advised.

In assessing workplace safety, the EEOC said that employers can consider “the type of workplace, 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.”

It is not an undue hardship that other employees may seek a religious exemption, “but the employer may take into account the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees.”

All requests should be considered on a case-by-case basis.