Publication of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s COVID-19 vaccination and testing emergency temporary standard had many employers asking: What must we do when an employee asserts a religious exemption? This article provides a brief outline of the private1 employer’s obligations whenever an employee requests a reasonable accommodation for a religious belief, practice, or observance.
Religious Beliefs are Defined by the Law, Not the Employer
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) requires employers with 15 or more employees to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs, practices, and observances (collectively, “religious belief”) of applicants and employees. Federal law broadly defines religious beliefs. There is no obligation to become an encyclopedia of all religions or moral belief systems.
Protected religious beliefs include “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong” that “are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”2 The belief does not have to be adopted by a religious group or even theistic. Any “sincere and meaningful belief that occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God” is religious belief protected by Title VII.3 But passionate feelings, personal preferences, and political beliefs alone are insufficient. The distinction between passionate feelings and protected religious beliefs can be difficult to identify. But employers should not inquire about the moral or theological merits of an asserted religious belief or test the logic or accuracy of that belief. Instead, employers should assume the asserted religious belief is sincerely held unless specific circumstances cause the employer to doubt the sincerity or religious nature of the asserted belief.
Conduct a Limited Inquiry into the Nature and/or Sincerity of the Religious Belief
Employers may inquire about the sincerity or religious nature of an asserted belief. Considering the following questions can assist employers complete this inquiry:
- Has the employee behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the asserted belief?
- Is the timing of the request or asserted belief suspicious?
- Are there any facts or circumstances that undermine the individual’s credibility?
- Is the accommodation requested a desirable benefit likely to be sought for non-religious reasons?4
Religious beliefs protected by Title VII are broad and can be individual to each applicant or employee. A best practice is to have the employee complete a reasonable accommodation request form to provide the following information:
- Describes the religious belief, practice, or observance with specificity
- Provides a timeframe for how long the employee held the religious belief
- Identifies the employment task(s) that conflict with the religious belief
- Outlines potential accommodations requested
- Affirms the religious belief is sincerely held
Employers should discuss this information and any questionable observations or conduct undermining the employee’s credibility with the employee. This practice is similar to the interactive process required when an accommodation is requested by a qualified disabled person. Provide a Reasonable Accommodation Sincerely held religious beliefs must be reasonably accommodated, unless the accommodation poses an undue hardship on the employer. An undue hardship is presented when the accommodation has more than a de minimis cost (financial or figurative) on the employer’s business operations. Beyond monetary costs, safety, job efficiency, legal requirements, and infringement on other employees’ rights can constitute an undue hardship. Employers must engage in a careful evaluation of the impact proposed accommodations will have on their business and deny only those that present an actual and articulable undue hardship.
Utilize EEOC Resources and Seek Legal Counsel
The EEOC updated guidance on religious accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those resources include the following:
- Section 12: Religious Discrimination, EEOC Compliance Manual (updated Jan. 15, 2021)
- What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws (updated Dec. 14, 2021)
Employers are encouraged to review this guidance and consult with legal counsel to ensure best practices are used.
1 Public employers cannot infringe upon an employee’s right to engage in religious expression, practice, or observance provided by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The same prohibition does not apply to private employers.
2 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1.
3 U.S. v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 165-66 (1965); see also Section 12: Religious Discrimination, EEOC at A(1) (Jan. 15, 2021), available at https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/section-12-religious-discrimination#_ftnref21 (hereinafter, “EEOC Religious Discrimination”).
4 EEOC Religious Discrimination at A(2).