The federal agency tasked with enforcing laws against workplace discrimination has updated its guidance on religious exemptions for workplace vaccine mandates, saying in a new document that requests based on “sincerely held” beliefs must be accommodated, but that federal law does not protect objections based on political and personal views.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a bipartisan agency, released the updated guidance on Monday, basing it on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion.
“Generally, under Title VII, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs,” the EEOC document said.
Many businesses are requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for employees. Such mandates have led to lawsuits in some regions and overwhelming acceptance in others. Tyson Foods said this week that 96 percent of its 120,000 workers are vaccinated. The Biden administration is expected to issue details of its rule in the days requiring companies with 100 or more employees either to get vaccinated or to get regularly tested, Reuters reported.
About 80 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with about 70 percent being fully vaccinated.
When making a request for a religious exemption, the EEOC said, 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.”
Title VII “does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences,” the EEOC said.
“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,” the EEOC said.
Employers may ask questions of employees under certain circumstances, the EEOC said. For example, if an employer has an “objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief,” the “employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.”
The EEOC listed four factors that could undermine an employee’s credibility:
- “whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief.”
- “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).”
- “whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.”
Any inquiry must be balanced, the EEOC warned.
“An 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,” the EEOC said. “No one factor or consideration is determinative, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.
“... Although prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, 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,” the EEOC said. “An 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. No one factor or consideration is determinative, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.”
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.