Mandatory vaccine policies became even more of a scorching hot topic after the Biden Administration announced its Path Out of the Pandemic initiative (which we previously wrote about here). Some employees may have a legitimate medical reason for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine (e.g., an allergy to vaccine components). But what about an employee claiming to have a religious objection to taking the vaccine? We have recently seen clients experiencing an influx in requests from employees seeking a religious accommodation to be exempt from the company’s mandatory vaccine policy. Below, we discuss some of the complex legal and practical issues employers should consider when navigating these unchartered waters.
Quick recap of the “religious exemption”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), and similar state and local anti-discrimination laws, prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion. To comply with those laws, employers are generally required to accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” religious belief, observance or practice. A religious accommodation is an adjustment to the work environment that, once implemented, allows the employee to continue working while also complying with his or her religious beliefs. In guidance issued earlier this year, the EEOC stated “[t]he law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.” Even if the religious assertion seems irrational or is not the actual teaching of a recognized religious group or denomination, the relevant standard under Title VII is the sincerity of the individual’s belief.
Determining what a “sincerely held” religious belief means
Here is where it gets tricky. The EEOC and courts have interpreted “religious belief” very broadly under Title VII. An employee does not have to show they attend a place of worship, are a member of an organized religion, or even believe in a deity. Nor does an employee seeking a religious accommodation need to provide a note from their priest or spiritual advisor verifying that employee’s belief. According to the EEOC, a “religious belief” includes any “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” In its Compliance Manual, the EEOC warns employers should not be in the business of trying to decide whether a person holds a religious belief for the “proper” reasons. The inquiry should focus on the sincerity of the belief; not the motives or reasons for holding that belief in the first place.