Step-by-Step Guide for Handling Employees’ Religious Accommodation Requests

Labor & Employment Workforce Watch
October 2021

Updated March 10, 2022 after EEOC guidance regarding religious accommodations related to COVID-19 was updated on March 9, 2022.

As more employers begin to mandate vaccines, requests for religious accommodations are on the rise. Unfortunately for employers and employees alike, handling a religious accommodation request is not a simple process. When faced with religious accommodation requests by employees, employers should consider the request through the following framework:

Step 1. Does the employee have a “religious belief”?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination based on their “religion.” The definition of religion under the Civil Rights Act expands far beyond traditional religious groups, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Lesser known religions, including those that may have no other followers besides the employee, may fall within the broad definition of “religion.” Additionally, the term “religion” also includes non-theistic and moral beliefs that concern ultimate ideas about life, purpose, and death. For example, at least one federal district court has held that, under certain circumstances, “veganism” could be considered a religion. For these reasons, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that determining whether a belief is “religious” is “more often than not a difficult and delicate task.”

However, even though the definition of religion is broad, it does not include political, philosophical, social, economic, or even medical beliefs and opinions. Often, distinguishing between religious and other beliefs can be difficult for employers and employees, making the employer/employee dialogue an important part of fully understanding an employee’s religious beliefs and what those beliefs prohibit. To help facilitate this dialogue, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force developed a religious accommodation request form that provides employees an initial opportunity to explain their accommodation request. Although not mentioned in the EEOC’s guidance, this form is being widely used with federal employees. In addition to an initial request form, some employers are requesting, and some employees are volunteering, additional supporting documentation, which can also provide insight throughout the interactive process.

Step 2. Is the religious belief “sincerely held”?

Although the EEOC guidance indicates the sincerity of an employee’s belief is not typically disputed in the request process, if an employee requests an accommodation based on a religious belief, then the employer may analyze whether that belief is “sincerely held” by the employee. Per the EEOC guidance, this analysis may include a limited factual inquiry and request that the employee explain the religious nature of his/her belief, practice, or observance and how such belief, practice, or observance conflicts with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. The EEOC points employers to specific factors when analyzing whether an employee’s religious belief is sincere. These four factors include:

  1. whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance);
  2. whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons;
  3. 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
  4. whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

This list is non-exhaustive, no single factor is dispositive, and the EEOC suggests that employers start the analysis from the assumption that an employee’s religious belief is, in fact, sincerely held. Notably, however, even if an employee occasionally deviates from the tenants of a particular religion, or the belief is newly-adopted, the belief may not be per se insincere, and more analysis may be required.

Although employers may ultimately be proven correct, rejecting a religious claim for a lack of sincerity could potentially lead to litigation, so employers should proceed carefully when making this determination and provide employees the opportunity to explain the reasons and need for their accommodation.

Step 3. Is there a reasonable accommodation?

The final step in addressing a religious accommodation request is determining whether there is a reasonable accommodation for the employee. Employers are required to attempt to meet the employee’s religious needs through reasonable accommodation; however, they are not required to offer or accept an accommodation that would cause an undue hardship.

What constitutes a reasonable accommodation depends on the specific facts of the employee’s position and the needs of the workplace. In the context of vaccines, reasonable accommodations may include: required mask wearing, social distancing, regular testing, modified work hours, or remote work. But, offering a reasonable accommodation is not a one-size-fits-all approach; some of these accommodations—such as remote working—may not be reasonable because they impose an undue hardship on the employer or are simply not practical for some positions or for some companies. Accordingly, the EEOC recognizes that just because a reasonable accommodation may be provided for one position, that same accommodation is not necessarily considered reasonable for all positions, all employees, or all locations.

Employers who determine an accommodation is not reasonable for a particular situation should know that the onus will be on the employer to show that the proposed accommodation caused an undue hardship, which is more than a “de minimis” cost or burden and must be based on objective information rather than speculative or hypothetical hardships. According to the EEOC, an accommodation will not be “reasonable” if it requires the employee to accept a reduction in pay or some other loss of a benefit or privilege of employment (such as taking an unpaid leave), and there is a reasonable alternative accommodation that does not require such a reduction or loss of benefit, and that would not impose undue hardship on the employer’s business.

This is a lower burden than disability accommodation requests. When determining whether an accommodation causes an undue hardship to the employer, the EEOC and federal courts may consider the following:

  • Costs of implementing the accommodation,
  • Whether the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs,
  • Whether the accommodation infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits,
  • Whether the accommodation impairs workplace safety,
  • Whether the accommodation causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, and
  • Whether the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law will also be considered.

More information regarding religious accommodation requirements can be found on the EEOC’s FAQ page on COVID-19 and EEO laws.

Employers and employees must discuss these religious accommodation issues to best understand how each request should be handled. Employers faced with religious accommodation requests should carefully consider these issues to navigate the complex legal requirements and minimize the risks of non-compliance.