December 13, 2021
5 Steps to Handling Religious Exemptions from Vaccine Mandates

Is your company considering a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees? Perhaps you already have one? This delicate area can lead to questions and concerns, particularly religious exemptions. 

Organizations considering or already have instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate should prepare for this exact scenario. Employers must know what type of objections are protected under the anti-discrimination laws and what qualifies as a sincerely held religious belief. You also need to know how to handle religious requests and accommodations.

Employers with 15 or more employees (including state and local government agencies) are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This means you must accommodate employees who refuse to get vaccinated due to sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances unless an accommodation would cause undue hardship for the business. 

How should you manage these requests? And what steps can you take to verify the sincerity of an employee’s beliefs? Below, we discuss how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines religion and recommended guidance for handling religious accommodations.

What is the official definition of religion?

So, a team member has come to you with religious reasons not to get a vaccine. First, ensure you understand the legal definition of religion which, according to the EEOC, is very broad for the purposes of Title VII. Religion includes:

  • “All aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief,” not only practices mandated or prohibited by a principle of the individual’s faith
  • Traditional organized religions (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism)
  • “Religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

A religious belief is covered if it is “sincere and meaningful” and takes a role in the individual’s life equivalent to that of God. On the other hand, a religious belief does not need to “be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others” to be protected.

Religious beliefs include both: 

  • Theistic beliefs, and
  • Non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”

This doesn’t mean that a belief is protected simply because it is firmly held. Courts typically place greater emphasis on whether the beliefs involve “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.”

Beliefs and opinions that are not covered by Title VII include:

  • Social philosophies
  • Political opinions
  • Economic beliefs
  • Personal preferences

The EEOC states that overlap between a religious and political view could still be protected, given that the view is part of an overall religious belief system and is not just a standalone principle.

For more details, refer to the EEOC’s guidance on the definition of religion and religious discrimination.

5 Steps to Handling Religious Exemptions from a Vaccine Mandate

1. Establish a policy and process for employees.

This process begins with the employee notifying the employer of a religiously-based objection. Ensure employees know how to submit requests for religious accommodations by outlining this process in your policy.

This includes verbal requests—while Title VII doesn’t mandate written requests, you can require employees to go through your procedure. Not to mention, having written documentation is always best practice.

2. Perform an initial review of the religious exemption request.

Next, review the request to verify if it falls under Title VII protections and if you must consider the accommodation. Employers should assume that an employee’s religious exemption request is based on a sincerely held belief. 

Note that employees do not have to use specific language in their requests. Train supervisors to recognize an accommodation request and who to communicate such requests with in the company, such as your HR department.

3. Determine if the religious belief is sincere—with caution.

Start the interactive process. This is a good-faith effort in which the employer, employee, and, in some cases, the employee’s religious leader discuss the nature of the employee’s religious beliefs and limitations on receiving an employer-mandated vaccine. Through this conversation, the employer can determine what (if any) accommodations may be required.

Ask the employee to provide: 

  • An explanation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, and
  • If necessary, appropriate documentation from their religious leader explaining the religious belief that conflicts with the vaccine mandate.

Even if you receive requests from multiple employees using the same language, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their beliefs are not sincere. Best practice is to grant the exemption request and focus on finding a reasonable accommodation that does not cause undue hardship. 

If you do have an objective reason to question the religious nature or sincerity of the employee’s belief or practice, you can seek additional supporting information. The EEOC states that the following factors may weaken an employee’s claim:

  • The employee has behaved inconsistently with the professed belief.
  • The employee is seeking a “particularly desirable” accommodation that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons.
  • The timing of the request is suspicious (e.g., The employee recently requested the same benefit for secular reasons and was denied.)
  • The employer has other reasons to believe the accommodation request is not based on religious grounds.

Employers should proceed with caution, as employees are not legally required to reference religious text or provide documentation from a religious leader to support their beliefs. If you need to ask more questions, tailor them on a case-by-case basis. 

4. Contemplate potential accommodations and undue hardship.

Work with your HR team to determine whether or not a reasonable accommodation exists. Consider all possible solutions, including remote work. If you have employees whose jobs require them to be onsite, consider weekly COVID-19 testing and masking or moving the employee to a private work area.

Employers can select the best accommodation for them and do not have to provide the employee’s preferred accommodation. The EEOC advises documenting and explaining to the employee why you refuse a specific accommodation. 

When determining if an accommodation will pose a direct threat or undue hardship for your business, the EEOC recommends considering objective information, like whether the employee:

  • Works outdoors or indoors;
  • Works alone or in a group; or
  • Has close contact with coworkers, customers, or other business partners.

Consult with the employee’s supervisor to determine which accommodations would be reasonable, including the employee’s request and alternatives. If you use the undue hardship reasoning, you must prove that the proposed accommodation poses “more than a de minimis” cost or burden. 

5. Inform the employee of the decision.

HR should let the employee know in writing if their requested accommodation has been approved or denied. If you have refused it, be sure to communicate and document other possible alternative accommodations.

Your HR team should maintain all copies of religious exemption requests and related documentation, information, and denials in a file separate from the employee personnel file. Ensure all leaders at your organization understand that it is illegal to discuss an employee’s reasonable accommodation or retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.

Guidance for Religious Accommodations

Navigating requests for a religious exemption from a vaccine requirement can be tricky. Employers must protect the health and safety of all of their employees but are simultaneously responsible for considering and providing reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the safest path.

We recommend consulting with your legal counsel and HR team when it comes to religious accommodations. For help on the HR side, contact BlueLion today at 603-818-4131 or to learn more!

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.