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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently updated its guidance for employers on how to handle employees’ requests for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination requirements in workplaces, including the healthcare industry where requests are increasing. 

EEOC also made public its own internal accommodation request form that is used for EEOC employees.  EEOC said that releasing its own internal forms as a guide was not its usual practice, but it was doing so in this case because of the “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion.  This includes a right for job applicants and employees to request an exception, called a religious or reasonable accommodation, from an employer requirement that conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. 

“If an employee’s objection to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement is not religious in nature, or is not sincerely held, Title VII does not require the employer to provide an exception to the vaccination requirement as a religious accommodation,” the EEOC says. 

Key points from the EEOC updates include: 

Clear Processes. When an employee has a religious objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, they do not need to use any “magic words” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.” However, the employees must explain the conflict and the religious basis for it. As a best practice, an employer should provide employees and applicants with information about whom to contact and the proper procedures for requesting a religious accommodation. 

Sincerity of Religious Beliefs. An employer should proceed on the assumption that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information. 

Undo Employer Hardship. The determination of whether a proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship depends on specific factual context. Employers do not need to grant all religious accommodation requests because they have previously granted some. A determination of whether a proposed accommodation imposes an undue hardship depends on specific factual context. 

Reasonable Accommodation. Employers may choose which accommodation to offer when there is more than one that would resolve the conflict. However, an accommodation is no longer reasonable if it requires an employee to accept a reduction in pay or some other loss of a benefit or privilege.  

Changing Circumstances. The employer’s obligation to provide religious accommodations is a continuing obligation that may change over time. Employers may discontinue accommodations if it is no longer utilized for religious purposes or if the accommodation starts to present an undue hardship on the company. 

To read the complete guidance update, go here.