As the pace of employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccinations are on the rise, the EEOC has recently posted updated and expanded technical assistance (Sections L.1-L.6) addressing questions about religious objections to such mandates.

The Key Updates to the technical assistance are summarized below:

  • Employees and applicants must inform their employers if they seek an exception to an employer COVID-19 vaccine requirement due to a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.  They do not need to use any “magic words” to make this request.
  • Title VII requires employers with 15 or more employees to consider requests for religious accommodations, but does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences of employees who seek exceptions to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
  • An employer should generally assume a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  However, if an employer has an objective basis to question either the religious nature or sincerity of a particular belief, the employer can make a limited factual inquiry and seek additional supporting documentation.
  • Employers that demonstrate they are unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief without an “undue hardship” are not required to accommodate an employee’s accommodation request.  To establish undue hardship for a religious accommodation request, the employer need only show the accommodation would cause it to bear more than a “de minimis,” or minimal cost (as compared to a medical exemption request which places a higher burden on employers to demonstrate undue hardship).  Costs may include not only direct monetary costs, but also the burden on the business, including the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other employees or the public.

Best Practices for COVID-19 Vaccine Exemption Requests (both religious and medical):

  • Designate a department or position where such requests should be directed.
  • Notify employees in writing of the exemption request process.
  • Develop forms to facilitate the processing and evaluation of exemption requests.  Each request should be reviewed individually based on the specific factual context.
  • Carefully document the factual basis for any undue hardship claim.
  • Develop a filing system to make sure documentation supporting these requests are maintained as confidential and sensitive business information separate from an employee’s personnel file.