Workplace anti-bias laws require employers to consider requests for religious exemptions to a Covid-19 vaccination requirement, but those protections don’t extend to political objections to such mandates, the federal government said in new guidance Monday.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its technical guidance for employers to provide clarity about religious exemptions. The update said Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects workers against religious discrimination, doesn’t cover a worker’s request to be exempted from a workplace vaccination requirement for political, social, or economic reasons, because they don’t qualify as “religious beliefs.”
“When an employee’s objection to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement is not religious in nature, or is not sincerely held, Title VII does not require the employer to provide an exception to the vaccination requirement as a religious accommodation,” the guidance said.
The agency has updated its guidance throughout the pandemic to provide employers, workers, and other stakeholders with information about how to navigate the evolving workplace challenges.
Corporations and the federal government have widely implemented workplace mandates to encourage employees to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, which medical professionals have found to be effective at reducing the most severe outcomes of the infection.
Vaccine mandates have already faced, and largely withstood, legal challenges. Some business groups are preemptively gearing up to sue to block an imminent U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that would compel businesses with at least 100 workers to require a vaccination or weekly testing policy.
The newly updated guidance clarifies that if a worker has a religious conflict, the worker must inform the employer to request an accommodation from a vaccine policy—and the employee doesn’t need to use “magic words” like “religious accommodation” to do so.
The employer should assume that such a request is based on a sincerely held religious belief, but “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,” according to the guidance.
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“Although prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs—or degree of adherence—may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held,” the guidance said.
Some religious accommodations may cause an “undue hardship” on an employer, but when considering if such a request would do so, employers should consider not only cost, “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 guidance said.
“Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, 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,” it said.
Granting one worker a religious exemption to a vaccine mandate also doesn’t mean that the employer must grant all requested exemptions.
“The determination of whether a particular proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business depends on its specific factual context,” the guidance said. “A mere assumption that many more employees might seek a religious accommodation to the vaccination requirement in the future is not evidence of undue hardship, but the employer may take into account the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees.”