Responding to Requests for Religious Exceptions To The Covid-19 Vaccine Mandate For Federal Contractor Employees

Your Government counsel.™

Individuals have a right not to be discriminated against due to their religion under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This right includes the right to request from their employers an exception from the vaccine mandate if being vaccinated conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs.  Given this fact, it is advisable that employers err on the side of granting any such request.

Non-medical related requests by an employee to be exempted from the vaccine mandate must be based upon the employee’s sincerely held religious belief as opposed to an employee’s political, social, economic, or personal views, which are not protected under Title VII. According to guidance from the EEOC, an employer should assume that a religious belief is sincerely held unless it has an objective basis for questioning the sincerity of a particular belief.

If an employer has an objective basis to question the religious nature upon which the request is based, they are permitted to make reasonable factual inquiries and request additional information supporting the employee’s request. But it is not a good idea to question the mere sincerity of the employee or deny the request based solely on a lack of sincerity.  If you do, the EEOC has commented that the following factors could support your conclusion:

whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance);

whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons;

whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and

whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

If the request is based upon a sincerely held religious belief, the employer must grant an accommodation unless it can demonstrate that granting the accommodation would cause an “undue hardship” to the employer’s operations, which must amount to a “significant difficulty or expense.” Inconvenience or having to incur a small cost is not a sufficient basis to deny a request.

A sample religious accommodation request form is available here.  It is the form the EEOC itself uses for any of its employees seeking this accommodation, so it should be reliable for your use.  For more information, here is a link to the EEOC website’s discussion of this issue.

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