HR Administration | 

Religious Exemptions: What Employers Need to Know

Employees may sometimes seek exemptions from workplace policies or rules for religious reasons. In fact, some employees are currently seeking exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates based on religious grounds. These requests must be handled carefully and in compliance with applicable laws.

Here are some guidelines for handling requests for religious exemptions:

Federal, State, and Local Laws:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations for employees' sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless it would cause an undue hardship. Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title VII, provides that employers must try to accommodate employees who are unvaccinated due to a religious objection or medical condition. Many states and local jurisdictions have similar laws, some of which cover smaller employers.

Interactive process:

When an employee makes you aware that they need an accommodation due to a conflict between religion and work, promptly begin an "interactive process," or dialogue, with the employee to identify what, if any, reasonable accommodation should be provided. An accommodation is an exception to certain policies or a change in the work environment or the way work is typically done.

Document the interactive process from the beginning, including reasons for granting or denying an accommodation request, as well as accommodation options that may have been proposed and rejected. Keep in mind that you aren’t required to provide the first accommodation requested by the employee if you can offer an effective alternative.

Undue hardship:

You generally aren’t required to provide an accommodation if it would result in undue hardship to your business. To establish undue hardship under federal law, you must show that the religious accommodation would require more than minimal cost. Consider the cost, the size of your business, the number of individuals in need of accommodation, and the burden on conducting your business. For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation impairs workplace safety and where the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law. States may have different definitions of undue hardship.

Religious Exemptions from COVID-19 Vaccination:

If an employee notifies you that a vaccination requirement conflicts with their religious beliefs or practices, begin the interactive process to determine whether the employee has a sincerely held religious belief that you can accommodate without undue hardship. Ask the employee to explain the religious basis for opposing vaccination, and in some circumstances, you may be able to request additional information or documentation about their faith to assess the sincerity of their belief.

What are religious beliefs?

Under federal guidance, religious beliefs are defined broadly and include moral and ethical belief systems about what is right and wrong that are held with the strength of religious views. The belief isn’t necessarily rooted in common, recognized religions. Determining whether a practice is religious should generally turn on the employee’s motivation rather than the nature of the belief or activity. For instance, an employee may follow a vegetarian diet because they believe it is religiously prescribed by scripture. In this situation, the vegetarianism might be considered a religious practice, even though many individuals adhere to a vegetarian diet for purely secular reasons. States may define religious beliefs differently.

By contrast, social, political, or economic views, as well as mere personal preferences, aren’t religious beliefs protected by Title VII. Employees may feel passionately about an issue without it being a religious belief. For instance, an employee who rejects vaccines because of anecdotes they read on social media or because they personally or philosophically don’t agree with vaccination wouldn’t generally be exercising a religious belief.

If you have questions whether a particular belief or practice is religious, consult legal counsel to discuss next steps.

Are they sincerely held beliefs?

Generally employers should assume that an employee's request is based on a sincerely held religious belief. However, if you have objective factors that might call into question an employee's sincerity (such as inconsistent behavior, timing of the request, or similar past requests made for secular reasons), seek legal counsel to discuss how you can request additional supporting information. For instance, perhaps an employee participated in your flu vaccine clinic in 2019 but is now objecting to the COVID-19 vaccine. You may want to follow up to determine whether there is an adequate explanation for the inconsistency, such as the employee’s religious beliefs changing over time.

Once you determine their religious belief is sincere, discuss with the employee possible accommodations. For example, an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace might be required to get weekly testing, wear a face mask, work at a social distance from coworkers, work a modified shift, be given the opportunity to telework, or accept a reassignment.

Also assess whether the proposed accommodation would impose an undue hardship to your business. In the context of vaccination requirements, you might look at the number of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with customers, clients or vendors whose vaccination status could be unknown. Undue hardship determinations should be made with the help of legal counsel.

Federal State and Local Vaccination Requirements:

Under regulations or emergency orders, certain employers may be required to mandate COVID-19 vaccination. For example, a few states and local jurisdictions are requiring healthcare and long-term-care workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19. In some cases, employees may submit to regular testing instead of vaccination if they oppose it for religious reasons, and in a few cases, there is no alternative to the vaccination requirement. For instance, Rhode Island requires healthcare workers at state facilities to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and there is no religious exemption. In New York, there is a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for healthcare workers that also doesn’t have a religious exemption, but the omission of a religious exemption is facing challenges in court.

Read applicable regulations and orders in full and consult legal counsel to understand your rights and responsibilities.

Additional State and Local Considerations:

Several states have rules that prohibit employers from enforcing vaccine mandates, unless they provide certain exemptions. Employers should consult legal counsel to discuss the impact of these laws on their vaccination policies and practices.

Note: Even if the individual isn’t entitled to a religious accommodation, they may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation for other reasons, such as a disability.

Conclusion:

Understand your obligations for providing religious accommodations, train supervisors on how to identify and respond to accommodation requests, document your interactive process and handle each request on a case-by-case basis.

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