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Employment Flyover: Religious Exemptions and Accommodations

October 28, 2021

With vaccine mandates on the rise, requests for religious accommodations have become more frequent.  Here are a few important things to think about as you develop your process for evaluating such requests:

  • Does the employee have a “religious belief”? The legal definition of religion is broad, including non-theistic and moral beliefs that concern ultimate ideas about life, purpose and death.  It does not, however, include political, philosophical, social, economic, or even medical beliefs and opinions.
  • Is the religious belief “sincerely held”? Employers normally should assume it is, unless there is an objective basis to believe otherwise. If a closer look is needed, consider the following:
    • Has the employee behaved in a manner consistent with the professed belief;
    • Is the accommodation the employee desires a benefit that others would likely seek for secular reasons;
    • Does the timing of the request render it suspect (e.g., in the vaccine context, an employee requested a medical exemption, which was denied, and is now seeking a religious exemption).
  • Is there a reasonable accommodation? During the current pandemic, reasonable accommodations have included masking, social distancing, working remotely, regular testing, or modified work hours.  However, religious accommodations do not need to be granted if they would cause the employer an undue hardship.  When evaluating whether an accommodation poses an undue hardship, consider the following:
    • The cost of the accommodation;
      • Whether the accommodation infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits or causes coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially burdensome work; or
      • Whether the accommodation jeopardizes workplace safety.