New EEOC guidance focuses on religious exemptions from vaccine mandates

The headquarters of The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Workers must inform employers of religious objections
  • Limited inquiries about sincerity of beliefs are allowed
  • Guidance comes as OSHA poised to require vaccine mandates or testing at larger companies

(Reuters) - The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided further insight into when companies must exempt workers from COVID-19 vaccine mandates for religious reasons, an issue that has already spurred closely watched litigation.

The EEOC on Monday updated guidance it first issued at the outset of the pandemic to clarify that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workers must inform employers if they intend to seek a religious exemption but do not have to utter "magic words" such as "religious accommodation" or "Title VII" to trigger an employer's legal obligations.

The commission also said employers should assume that workers' professed religious beliefs are sincere, but can seek more facts in a limited manner. A worker who fails to provide requested information risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation, the EEOC said.

The guidance comes as many more employers are adopting vaccine mandates, either voluntarily or in response to President Joe Biden's executive order requiring federal contractors to do so.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also expected to unveil a rule as early as this week requiring companies with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccines or require regular testing.

Religious exemptions are the focus of several lawsuits involving vaccine mandates, including cases against United Airlines Inc, New York, and Maine.

Many business groups have called on the EEOC for an update, including the HR Policy Association. In an Oct. 21 letter to the commission, the trade group, which represents about 400 of the largest employers in the U.S., said its members have received thousands of exemption requests.

In Monday's guidance, the commission said that while Title VII requires employers to consider requests for religious accommodations, the law does not protect workers' social and political views or personal preferences.

The EEOC also addressed the circumstances in which accommodations would cause an "undue hardship," relieving employers of the obligation to provide them. Whether an undue hardship exists can depend on if an employee works indoors or outdoors or in a solitary or group setting, according to the guidance.

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at