In the workplace, employees may sometimes seek exemptions from certain policies or rules based on religious grounds. And as Covid-19 vaccination mandates continue to take effect in companies over the country, an increasing number of employees are currently seeking exemptions for religious reasons.
These requests must be handled carefully and in compliance with applicable laws.
Here are some guidelines for handling requests for religious exemptions:
What Does the Law Say?
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 (EEOC) says that employers should generally assume that a request for religious exemption is fair, and advises that they attempt to accommodate employees who are unvaccinated due to a religious objection or medical condition.
The moment that an employee indicates their need for accommodation due to a conflict between religion and work, promptly begin a discussion with the employee to identify what-if any-reasonable accommodation should be provided.
From the beginning, document the entire discussion, 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.
If an accommodation would result in undue hardship to your business, you generally aren’t required to provide it. To prove undue hardship under Federal Law, you have to show that the religious accommodation request would require more than minimal cost.
Here, you should consider several variables, such as the cost, size of your business, the number of employees needing accommodation, and the burden on conducting your business. States may differ in how they define undue hardship.
Covid-19 Vaccinations and Religions Exemptions:
If an employee states that a vaccination requirement conflicts with their religious beliefs and/or practices, immediately begin the interactive process and 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 have a broad definition, but ultimately pertain to moral and ethical belief systems that are held with the strength of religious views. Because the belief is not solely based on common religions, it is important to find the motivation behind the employee’s practice. States may define religious beliefs differently.
Keep in mind that social, political, or economic views, as well as personal preferences, aren’t religious beliefs protected by Title VII. Employees may feel passionately about an issue without it being a religious belief.
If you have questions whether a particular belief or practice is religious, consult legal counsel to discuss next steps.
Is This A Sincere Belief?
As mentioned above, the EEOC says that employers should assume that an employee’s request is based on a sincerely held religious belief. However, if you come across wavering factors challenging an employee’s sincerity- such as inconsistent behavior, special timing, etc.- seek professional counsel to find out how to request more information.
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 the sincerity of a religious belief, discuss with the employee about possible accommodations. For example, an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace might be required to get weekly testing or work remotely for the time being.
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.
State and Local Vaccination Requirements:
Under regulations or emergency orders, certain employers may be required to mandate COVID-19 vaccination. In fact, 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. Again, consult with a professional to understand your requirements.
Additional State and Local Considerations:
Some states and local jurisdictions have enacted specific protections for employees concerning COVID-19 vaccination. Employers should consult legal counsel to discuss the impact of these laws on their vaccination policies and practices.
A growing concern for businesses all over the country, Covid-19 vaccination mandates are creating costly implications for employers who fail to comply with legal requirements. It’s imperative that you understand your obligations for providing-or denying- religious exemptions – especially as the number for requests continues to increase.
Furthermore, training your supervisors and documenting your interactive processes surrounding requests will ensure that the organization as a whole is working in compliance.
Reach out to our team at MCDA CCG to solve these legitimate concerns. Our up-to-date knowledge of current laws and regulations allows us to accurately review your current practices and further recommend adjustments we see fit and/or necessary.
Call our office-headquartered in Placentia, Orange County, California- today to speak with one of our experts in a free, no obligation discussion!