Yesterday, the EEOC updated its Guidance regarding COVID-19, specifically addressing employee religious objections to employer vaccination policies. What we learned is something we pretty much already knew; at least, it is the advice that we have been giving to clients, namely, that a political objection to vaccination is not protected by Title VII.
Title VII 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 employer shows that it cannot reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, practices, or observances without undue hardship on its operations, the employer is not required to grant the accommodation.
The EEOC reminds us that definition of “religion” under Title VII protects nontraditional religious beliefs that may be unfamiliar to employers. While the employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because it is based on unfamiliar religious beliefs, employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief and should not assume that the employer already knows or understands it. By contrast, Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences. Thus, objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.
That’s right, political objections to vaccines are not protected by Title VII. We already knew that, but it is nice to hear from the EEOC.
The EEOC also tells us that when making a request for a religious accommodation, employees do not need to use any “magic words,” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.” However, they need to notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. Then the employer and employer must engage in the “interactive process” to determine if a reasonable accommodation exists.
It is important for employees to understand that a request for a religious exception from a vaccination requirement does not mean that the employee receives an automatic pass. In some cases, the employer may not be able to accommodate an employee’s refusal to take a vaccination without creating an undue hardship to its business. Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, the religious accommodation would impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
Pro Tip: Any employer that requires its employees to be vaccinated (either because the law requires it or otherwise) should develop a form that employees and applicants can utilize to request a religious or medical exemption to vaccination.
Kathleen J. Jennings is a former principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters.