Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved use of three COVID-19 vaccines under emergency use authorizations in April 2021, many public and private employers have announced and/or implemented mandatory vaccination policies. In addition, on September 9, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order requiring that certain federal contractors mandate vaccinations for their workers and directed OSHA to implement a rule that would require employers with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccination and/or COVID-19 testing. For more information, see our previous blog post.

Employers implementing mandatory vaccination policies (either by the company’s decision or pursuant to government requirements) have been left with questions on how to properly address employee requests for accommodations to such policies due to religious beliefs, practices, and observances.

Today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws” webpage to include a brand new Section L, to provide guidance on religious objections to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The EEOC’s new guidance provides the following clarifications specific to COVID-19 vaccine mandates:

  • “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.”
  • Employees who fail to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risk losing any subsequently made claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.
  • While Title VII protects religious beliefs, including nontraditional religious beliefs, it does not protect “social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences.” If an employee objects to a COVID-19 vaccination based on “social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine,” then the employer is not obligated to provide a religious accommodation because these objections do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.
  • In assessing a request for an accommodation, employers should consider “all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment.”
  • In making an undue hardship analysis, employers may consider whether the religious accommodation “would impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.” The EEOC explained that in making this consideration in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may consider “whether the employee requesting a religious accommodation to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary or group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public (especially medically vulnerable individuals).”Employers may also consider “the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation (i.e., the cumulative cost or burden on the employer).”
  • Employers may reconsider religious accommodations in light of changing circumstances, such as if an employee’s religious beliefs and practices have changed or if the accommodation poses an undue hardship due to changes in the employer’s business.

Employers with questions about religious accommodations and COVID-19 vaccination requirements should contact experienced counsel.