How to Seek a Religious Exemption for the COVID Vaccine Mandate

Businesses with 100 employees or more will now be required to develop vaccine and testing policies to comply with a mandate issued by President Joe Biden's administration.

The Department of Labor said on Thursday that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will issue an emergency temporary standard on Friday that will mandate that the affected businesses develop a policy within 30 days.

Businesses that do not comply by January 4 will face a fine of up to $14,000 per violation, while the mandate is expected to affect more than 80 million people in the United States.

Biden's mandate will require that employees of businesses with at least 100 workers either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing beginning on January 4.

However, people will be able to apply for a religious exemption from any employers' vaccine mandate under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII forbids employment discrimination based on religion and grants employees and job applicants the right to request an exemption, also known as a religious or reasonable accommodation, from an employer's requirement if that requirement conflicts with a person's sincerely held religious beliefs.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explains the right to request a religious exemption under Title VII on its website and specifically discusses the vaccine mandate.

No Magic Words

An employer does not have to provide the accommodation if it can show that doing so would impose an "undue hardship on its operations."

The EEOC explains that there are no "magic words" that employees have to use when seeking an exemption. They do not have to cite Title VII or even use the term "religious accommodation" but they must tell their employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer's vaccine requirement.

"As a best practice, an employer should provide employees and applicants with information about whom to contact, and the procedures (if any) to use, to request a religious accommodation," the EEOC says.

Employers should generally assume that a request for a religious exemption is based on sincerely held beliefs but they are permitted to make "a limited factual inquiry" and seek "additional supporting information."

If the person seeking an exemption does not cooperate with that inquiry, they risk losing any later claim that their employer denied them accommodation improperly.

Protected Beliefs

Employees should also not assume that employers are familiar with their particular religious beliefs. Nontraditional beliefs are protected but employers may make inquiries about the nature of employees' beliefs. Employers cannot assume a request is invalid because the religious beliefs in question are unfamiliar to them.

The EEOC notes that the "sincerity of an employee's stated religious beliefs also is not usually in dispute" but it can be called into question based on factors including past behavior inconsistent with the stated beliefs or if the timing of the request makes it suspect.

However, the EEOC highlights the fact that beliefs can change over time, as can the degree of adherence to a belief, and therefore the employer "should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of the employee's practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of the employee's religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices but not others."

Title VII does not protect "social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences" and so an exemption cannot be sought on that basis.

Undue Hardship

Employers are permitted to reject a request for an exemption if they can show the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the business. The EEOC advises businesses to "rely on objective information" and not on speculative hardships. Undue hardships can include but are not limited to impairing workplace safety and reducing efficiency in other jobs.

An employer may grant religious accommodation to some employees but may deny it to others, depending on the "specific factual context" and assessment of undue hardships in each case. Additionally, if there is more than one way to provide religious accommodation to an employee, the employer may choose which route to take.

"If more than one accommodation would be effective in eliminating the religious conflict, the employer should consider the employee's preference but is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation preferred by the employee," the EEOC says.

An employer who grants a religious accommodation may later choose to discontinue it depending upon changing circumstances and hardships, while employees may seek additional or different accommodation if their beliefs or practices change. Employers should discuss the matter with affected employees before discontinuing an accommodation and seek a solution that would not impose an undue hardship.

A Medical Staffer Prepares a Vaccine Shot
A VIP StarNETWORK medical staff member prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine at a #VAXTOSCHOOL pop-up site at Life of Hope Center on October 21, 2021 in New York City. A Biden administration mandate will require businesses with 100 or more employees to implement a vaccine and COVID testing policy by January 4 or face fines. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images