Employers often struggle with determining whether an employee is entitled to a religious accommodation, especially where the employee is claiming that receiving a vaccination conflicts with sincerely held religious beliefs. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit which might offer some helpful guidance. The EEOC sued Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), a pediatric healthcare system, alleging that it violated federal law when it fired a maintenance assistant for requesting a religious exemption to its influenza vaccination policy.
According to the EEOC’s suit, the maintenance employee requested a religious exemption to CHOA’s flu vaccination requirements based on sincerely held religious beliefs. The employee’s position required extremely limited interaction with the public or staff of CHOA, and CHOA had previously granted the employee a religious exemption in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, however, CHOA denied the employee’s request for a religious accommodation and fired him when he refused the vaccine.
The EEOC alleged a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits firing an employee because of his religion and requires that sincerely held religious beliefs be accommodated by employers. The parties attempted to reach a pre-litigation settlement but were unable to come to agreement.
“It would not have been an undue burden for CHOA to continue accommodating its employee as it had in 2017 and 2018,” said Marcus G. Keegan, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Atlanta District Office. “Instead, CHOA inexplicably changed its stance on flu vaccination exemptions for this maintenance employee in 2019 and failed to consider any meaningful reasonable accommodations for his sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The EEOC’s press release did not provide much detail on the claimed religious belief, but instead focused on several key points: the employer’s previous accommodation of the same employee, the employee’s lack of contact with patients and staff which minimized public safety concerns, and the relative ease with which the employer could accommodate the request. The EEOC has long taken the position that one’s religious beliefs are rarely at issue in accommodation cases. In its most recent guidance on the topic, the EEOC says:
Like the religious nature of a belief, observance, or practice, the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious belief is usually not in dispute and is “generally presumed or easily established.” Further, the Commission and courts “are not and should not be in the business of deciding whether a person holds religious beliefs for the ‘proper’ reasons. We thus restrict our inquiry to whether the religious belief system is sincerely held; we do not review the motives or reasons for holding the belief in the first place.”
Therefore, absent objective evidence that the employee is not being truthful in his or her assertions, the employer should focus its analysis on whether the accommodation can be granted without undue hardship.