COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates: Religious Exemption

With new laws being passed mandating employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, many employees and employers have been wondering about exemptions. As previously posted, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has only recognized two exemptions: medical and religious.

The medical exemption is straightforward and can be determined by documentation from a medical professional. The religious exemption, however, has caused some confusion as what constitutes a religious objection. Many employees believe their personal belief is akin to religion.

On October 25, 2021, the EEOC updated its technical guidance for employers addressing the religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The update, among other recommendations, provides the following guidance to employers:

  • The employee must advise its employer that there is a conflict with the employee’s sincerely held religious belief and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. When requesting a religious accommodation, an employee does not need to use any “magic words” such as “religious accommodation.”
  • Title VII does not cover objections to a workplace vaccination policy for social, political or economic reasons, personal preferences or nonreligious concerns regarding possible side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, because such objections are not considered “religious beliefs” under Title VII.
  • Employers should assume that a request for a religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held belief unless the employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or sincerity of a particular belief. If an employer has an objective basis for questioning, the employer would be justified in making a limited inquiry and requesting additional supporting information.
  • An employee’s prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to whether an employee’s religious belief is sincerely held. However, because an employee’s beliefs or degree of adherence may change over time, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently held belief may still be sincerely held.
  • If an employee is waiting for a specific brand of the vaccine or an alternative version of the vaccine to become available because the employee has a conflict with receiving a particular vaccine based on the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, the employee may request a religious accommodation.
  • As a best practice, employers should notify employees and applicants of the specific procedures for requesting a religious accommodation.
  • An employer should consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment.
  • When considering whether a request for a religious accommodation causes an “undue hardship,” the employer should consider not only the cost associated with the accommodation, “but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business,” including the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.
  • Undue hardship has been found when the religious accommodation “impair[s] workplace safety, diminish[es] efficiency in other jobs, or cause[s] coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.”
  • If an employer grants some employees a religious accommodation from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, the employer is not required to grant all employee requests for accommodation.
  • If there is more than one accommodation that would resolve the conflict, the employer may choose which religious accommodation to offer.

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Daniel Thompson is an employment lawyer with Davis & Wojcik APLC, a Southern California based law firm with offices located in Temecula and Hemet. He is also the author of Land of Liability: A Guide for California Employers. He can be reached at (951) 652-9000.

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