November 1, 2021
Patrick M. Williams
Associate, Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC
Jeffrey A. Calabrese
Member, Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC
Requests for religious exemptions to employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates are on the rise. In response to significant public interest, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) updated its guidance recently to specifically address these religious accommodation requests. The updated guidance, found here, should prove helpful for employers seeking to fairly and lawfully administer these exemptions.
At the crux of the vaccine mandate and potential religious accommodations is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations upon request when workplace rules interfere with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances, so long as the requested accommodation does not pose an undue hardship on the employer’s operations. This framework applies to requests from employees seeking an exemption from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, and it considers such issues as the nature and sincerity of the employee’s belief; any undue hardship to the employer that may be created by granting the accommodation; and process considerations.
(1) The religious nature and sincerity of an employee’s belief
When an employee presents a request for a religious accommodation from a vaccination requirement, the employer should start its analysis by confirming that the beliefs in question are, in fact, religious. Title VII does not protect objections based on social, political, or personal preferences. It does, however, offer protections for both traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs. The beliefs do not have to be aligned with a formal denomination or organized church, and the employee need not present “proof” from a minister, though an employee may be asked to personally articulate the religious nature of their belief, and how those beliefs conflict with vaccination.
Title VII precedent makes it difficult, but not impossible, for an employer to challenge the sincerity of an individual’s religious belief. Newly adopted beliefs can be considered sincere. An employee’s beliefs are permitted to change over time, so the fact that an employee may have acted inconsistently with the stated belief in the past is not dispositive. If, however, there is objective evidence that suggests the belief is not bona fide – including prior inconsistent conduct, evidence suggesting the accommodation has actually been sought for nonreligious reasons, suspicious timing of a request (e.g., it closely follows an earlier, unsuccessful request for the same benefit for nonreligious reasons), or other similar grounds, an employer may ask the employee for further clarification. If the circumstances very clearly warrant it, an employer may choose to deny the exemption on the grounds that the employee’s stated religious beliefs are not actually sincerely held.
(2) The employer’s “undue hardship” consideration
If an employee is able to demonstrate a sincere, conflicting religious belief, the employer must next consider whether the requested accommodation (exemption from vaccination, or perhaps work from home or unpaid leave) would impose an “undue hardship” on its operations. Under Title VII, requiring an employer to bear more than a minimal cost is enough to be considered “undue hardship.” This threshold can be met in many ways. Requiring an employer to violate systems based on seniority constitutes undue hardship. Requiring an employer to hire additional workers constitutes an undue hardship, as is requiring the employer to risk a loss of production due to staffing shortages. The EEOC includes “the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public” as an undue hardship as well. While the law requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations for employee religious practices and beliefs, the law does not require employers to suffer financially or compromise worker safety to do so. An employer should conduct this analysis on the specific facts and interests implicated by each individual accommodation request.
(3) Process considerations
When considering these requests for religious accommodation, employers should remember that religious exemption requests should be evaluated on an individual basis with an eye towards a consistent process and results that are appropriate for the specific circumstances. Whether determining sincerity or the potential hardship placed on the employer, it is important to consider each individual’s beliefs and facts on a case-by-case basis. Even if an employer believes a vaccination exemption will or will not be granted, there is significant value in taking the time to engage in a documented, interactive process with each employee. A deliberate, thoughtful process will usually lead to better and more consistent results.
Vaccination mandates can be difficult to administer, and especially in response to government or customer requirements. Employers should be generally familiar with Title VII’s expectations, and they should be prepared to contact a trusted legal advisor for more difficult questions.
Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC (SKO) understands that these are trying times for our clients and our country. Our firm operations have continued uninterrupted and our attorneys are equipped to serve as we always have – for more than 120 years.
Stoll Keenon Ogden’s Labor, Employment & Employee Benefits practice has a proven record of being trusted advisors and effective advocates. We help employers solve their problems through proactive counseling, employee training and, where possible, cost-efficient litigation, including alternative dispute resolution. We know the employment laws thoroughly, and we make it our goal to acquire a comprehensive knowledge of our clients and their business, so we can provide tailored solutions for each of their needs.
Please also be sure to consult the Stoll Keenon Ogden’s Coronavirus Resource webpage for additional articles and information related to the latest information on new laws and directives enacted by federal, state and local governments in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
 TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977). Note this “undue hardship” analysis is considerably more employer-friendly than the “undue burden” analysis under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
 Virts v. Consol. Freightways Corp., 285 F.3d 508, 518 (6th Cir. 2002).
 Cooper v. Oak Rubber Co., 15 F.3d 1375, 1380 (6th Cir. 1994).