Religious Accommodation Law
Private Employers must offer religious accommodations pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and can only deny religious accommodation requests based on doubts about the employee’s sincerity or on a valid claim of hardship to the company. As the Sixth Circuit has declared, “the truth of a belief is not open to question[.]” Equal Emp. Opportunity Comm’n v. Publix Super Markets, Inc., 481 F. Supp. 3d 684, 699 (M.D. Tenn. 2020); citing United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 185, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733 (1965). Title VII’s broad definition of “religion” includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief…” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j); see also 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1 (“[R]eligious practices… include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”). Religious beliefs protected by Title VII need not be “acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others…” E.E.O.C. v. Union Independiente de la Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantrillados de Puerto Rico, 279 F.3d 49, 56 (1st Cir. 2002); citing Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Employment Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 714, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981). In the end, the sincerity requirement is just a “credibility assessment” that asks if a religious belief is honest. Kay v. Bemis, 500 F.3d 1214, 1219 (10th Cir. 2007).
On October 25, 2021, the EEOC expanded its guidance on religious exemption to employer vaccine mandates under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Guidance”). This Guidance describes in greater detail the framework under which the EEOC advises employers to resolve religious accommodation requests.
- EEOC Guidance explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. See EEOC Guidance at K.12.
- EEOC Guidance further explains that when making the request, employees do not need to use any “magic words,” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.” However, employees should notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. The same principles apply if employees have a religious conflict with getting a particular vaccine and wish to wait until an alternative version or specific brand of COVID-19 vaccine is available. Id. at L.1.
- The EEOC instructs employers that the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs should not be disputed. Id. at L.2.
- The EEOC states, “An individual’s beliefs – or degree of adherence – may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held. An employer should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of the employee’s practices deviate from the commonly followed tenants of the employee’s religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices but not others.” Id. at L.2.
The EEOC emphasizes that as a reasonable accommodation, an unvaccinated employee entering into the workplace might wear a face mask, work at a social distance from coworkers or non-employees, work a modified shift, get periodic tests for COVID-19, be given the opportunity to telework, or finally, accept a reassignment. See Guidance at K.2. The EEOC states that an employer cannot rely on speculative hardships when face with an employee’s religious objection but, rather, should rely on objective information. Id. at L.3. Similarly, the EEOC states that an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment. In many circumstances, it may be possible to accommodate those seeking reasonable accommodations for their religious beliefs, practices, or observances without imposing an undue hardship. Id. at L.3.
Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee “because of such individual’s . . . religion.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). This “includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that [it] is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s . . . religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Id. § 2000e(j). After receiving an accommodation request, “the employer is obligated by law to engage in an interactive process—a meaningful dialogue with the employee[.]” EEOC v. Chevron Phillips Chem. Co., 570 F.3d 606, 621 (5th Cir. 2009). The employer must act in “good faith,” id., and the employee must “make a good faith attempt to satisfy his needs through means offered by the employer,” Brener v. Diagnostic Ctr. Hosp., 671 F.2d 141, 146 (5th Cir. 1982).
An Employer’s mandatory vaccination policy cannot be inflexible and instead requires bilateral cooperation or interactive process. See Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60, 69 (1986) (stating that, consistent with the goals expressed in the legislative history of Title VII’s religious accommodation provision, “courts have noted that bilateral cooperation is appropriate in the search for an acceptable reconciliation of the needs of the employee’s religion and the exigencies that the of the employer’s business”)
You Have Rights
Title VII also makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who engaged in protected activity. The value of religious freedom has been “zealously protected, sometimes even at the expense of other interests of admittedly high social importance.” Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 214 (1972). If you have been harmed by an employer failing to accommodate your religious belief, please contact us by call 844-HURWITZ or complete our online form. We can help!