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Religious Objection to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate: EEOC Issues Updated Guidance
Religious Objection to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate: EEOC Issues Updated Guidance

On October 25, 2021, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its technical guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering further clarity on some of the longstanding practices surrounding religious-based objections by an employee to a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. The latest changes appear at Section L, entitled “Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates.”

As explained by the EEOC, mandatory vaccine policies are subject to compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which, broadly speaking, prohibits employment discrimination by an employer against an employee’s sincerely held religious belief and requires the employer to engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee as to any religious-based accommodation request.

In the context of COVID-19 vaccines, the updated guidance confirms that employees are responsible for triggering this interactive process by advising their employer of any conflict between their sincerely held religious belief and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. The guidance notes that employers are provided a limited opportunity to inquire as to the sincerity of a particular religious belief if there is an objective basis for doing so. In practice, however, the sincerity of an employee’s religious belief is not usually in dispute, and the conversation shifts to a balancing assessment of whether (and how) the employer may be able to accommodate the request without creating an “undue hardship” for the employer.

The EEOC’s guidance provides several examples of “reasonable accommodations” that may be offered as an alternative to the COVID-19 vaccine, including requirements that the employee wear a mask and maintain distance from co-workers while in the workplace, work remotely (when practical), and/or submit to periodic tests for COVID-19. Employers are entitled to balance these considerations against potential “undue hardships” that may result to business operations as a result of any requested accommodation. According to the EEOC, an “undue hardship” may exist where, among other reasons, the accommodation is too costly or otherwise decreases workplace efficiency and/or workplace safety.

Employers are well advised to consult the EEOC’s extensive guidance as they continue to address these sensitive topics. Connell Foley’s Labor and Employment Group is available to guide businesses with a step-by-step approach to COVID-19 vaccination policies and to address an employee’s requested exemption/accommodation in response to a vaccination mandate.

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