UPDATE: Religious Exemptions from COVID-19 Vaccinations

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UPDATE:  Religious Exemptions from COVID-19 Vaccinations

On October 25, 2021, the EEOC released an update[1] religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination.  The EEOC notes that requests for accommodation should be handled on a case-by-case basis.  And in deciding how to proceed, the employer and employee should consider that:

  •     •Even though there are no “magic words” when an employee makes an accommodation request, an employee making a religious exemption request must inform their employer if they are requesting an exemption from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement because of their religious belief; and the same principles apply if employees have a religious conflict with getting a particular vaccine and wish to wait until a specific brand is available.
  •     •Employers can ask employees to explain the religious nature of their belief, as well as how their religious belief conflicts with COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
  •     •Employees should not assume that an employer already knows or understands the religious nature of their belief.
  •     •Employers may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
  •     •While the sincerity of a religious belief is not normally in dispute, the employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.”


The EEOC reminds employers that while prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs or degree of adherence may change over time.  These are scenarios in which the EEOC provides that an employee’s religious exemption request can be met with additional questions, or denied:

  •     •When an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief. In such a case, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.
  •     •When an objection to COVID-19 vaccination is not based on religion. Objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on non-religious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as religious beliefs under Title VII.
  •     •When an employee is not credible. The EEOC clarifies that while the sincerity of a religious belief is not normally disputed, employee credibility can be considered when the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief; when there is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for non-religious reasons; when the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); or when the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.
  •     •When an employee fails to cooperate.


Another part of the sincerely held religious believe exemption analysis involving “undue hardship,” applies to both the employee and the employer.  Considerations include costs (direct and indirect) and as to the employer in determining how to proceed when faced with a request for religious accommodation, which includes the costs and burdens on the conduct of the employer’s business, like the risks of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or the public.  You can imagine this may be especially of concern in retail, food service or other settings involving services provided to the public or employees required to work in close proximity to others.  The EEOC guidance notes that employers cannot speculate on potential hardships, but they can consider the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation (i.e., the cumulative cost or burden on the employer).

The EEOC guidance confirms that an employer has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation if it is no longer used for religious purposes, or if a provided accommodation subsequently poses an undue hardship on the employer’s operations due to changed circumstances.

Here at Epps & Coulson, LLP we understand that these COVID-19 vaccine issues may be confusing.  We are available to advise.  Feel free to contact Dawn: dcoulson@eppscoulson.com

Information contained in this Memo is intended for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.  It is considered advertising under laws of some states.  Epps & Coulson, LLP encourages you to call to discuss these matters as they apply to you or your business.

Attorneys admitted to practice in
California, New York, Colorado, Texas, and Oregon

[1] https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws