When May a Request for Religious Accommodation Be Rejected?

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When May a Request for Religious Accommodation Be Rejected

Every employer that institutes a mandatory vaccination policy for COVID-19 must also grant genuine requests for religious accommodation when they do not pose an undue hardship. Judging when to grant or reject these requests is one of the hardest tasks that employers may face.

Many employers find the task of judging whether or not a belief is sincere so difficult that they simply move to attempt to find accommodation. Though the job of determining whether a request for religious accommodation must be performed carefully, employers are not without options.

What is a Sincerely Held Religious Belief?

Title VII provides an extremely broad definition for religion, and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) should give employers an idea of how difficult it can be to pinpoint what law regards as being a sincere religious belief. According to the EEOC’s compliance manual, “religion” includes all traditional religions as well as new beliefs that are not part of any formal church and may only be held by a very small number of people, including beliefs that appear unreasonable or illogical.  

Due to how difficult it can be to pinpoint what is a sincere religious belief, the EEOC urges employers to ordinarily assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. This means that employers should request additional information only when they have an objective reason to question if the belief is religious.

This may happen when employees include reference to vague legal rights or political ideologies, as well as concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. In cases such as these where an employer is given an objective reason to question whether a belief is actually religious or sincerely held, an employer may request additional supporting information.

When deciding this, the EEOC has established four factors for employers to consider:

  • Has the employee behaved inconsistently with this professed belief?
  • Is the accommodation a particularly desirable benefit that an employee might pursue for non-religious reasons?
  • Is the timing for the request subsequent to the same request made for non-religious reasons?
  • Are there other objective reasons to believe the accommodation is being requested for non-religious reasons?

Sometimes past behavior can provide a strong indicator of inconsistencies, such as if the employee claims vaccines violate their religion; however, they have received yearly flu vaccines in the past. Sometimes these inconsistencies may not be enough, however, to conclude that the belief is not sincere, in which case employers should consider if the accommodation would provide an undue hardship.

Employers are required to reasonably accommodate workers that hold sincere religious beliefs, but they do not need to grant accommodations that would create an undue hardship. Given COVID-19 has killed more than 700,000 people in the United States, employers can make a strong argument that permitting unvaccinated workers to enter the workplace may be an undue burden. This will still require considering the individual circumstances of the worker and whether they would present a direct threat to others as well as any cost to the employer.

Even if simply allowing the employee to remain unvaccinated would present an undue hardship, employers must consider other alternatives as well, such as remote work, mask-wearing, social distancing, regular testing, and any other viable options. However, if these accommodations would still present an undue hardship, the employer may still have reason to terminate the employee for noncompliance.