New EEOC FAQs on Requests for Religious Exceptions to Employer COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

On Oct. 25, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued six new answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about how employers should handle employee requests for religious exceptions to their workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The FAQs address rules that apply to this type of request under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), which is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and other protected traits.

This Compliance Bulletin provides the six new FAQs below. Employers that are subject to Title VII and other federal fair employment laws should not only become familiar with these FAQs but also review the EEOC’s full guidance on COVID-19 and federal fair employment laws. The EEOC initially issued that guidance on March 18, 2020, and updated it several times since.

An employer is subject to Title VII if it has 15 or more employees. Smaller employers may be subject to similar rules under applicable state or local laws.

ACTION STEPS

All employers should follow the most current guidelines and suggestions for maintaining workplace safety issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and any applicable state or local health agencies. Employers with 15 or more employees should also become familiar with and follow the guidance provided in all of the EEOC’s FAQs about compliance with federal fair employment laws. These and all smaller employers should also ensure that they comply with all applicable state and local anti-discrimination laws.

HIGHLIGHTS

Vaccine Mandate Exemptions for Religious Beliefs

The EEOC’s new FAQs clarify, among other things, that employers with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate:

  • Must provide reasonable accommodations to employees who request to be exempt due to “sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances”;
  • Do not have to provide accommodations that would cause “undue hardship” on their business;
  • Must consider all potential accommodations before denying an employee’s request for a religious exemption;
  • Should generally avoid questioning the sincerity or nature of an employee’s religious beliefs, unless they have objective reasons for doubting it; and
  • Do not have to grant vaccine mandate exemptions for social, political or economic views or personal preferences.
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