Don’t Go Down with the Ship: Sham Review Process Sinks Navy’s Religious Exemption Policy

John Melcon

In one of the more notorious challenges to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, a group of Navy Special Warfare servicemembers filed suit after the Navy denied their requests for religious accommodations. Last week, a federal court upheld the servicemembers’ challenge, characterizing the Navy’s religious exemptions process as mere “theater.” Employers faced with workers’ requests for religious accommodations—whether few or many—should take note to avoid being called out for similar charades.

Since imposing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate last August, the Navy has apparently received over 3,000 requests for religious exemptions. How many of those has the Navy approved? None. Zero. Zilch. In fact, the Navy has not granted a single religious exemption to any vaccine requirement in 7 years. Worse, the Navy’s process for “reviewing” such requests apparently calls for officials to draft and circulate denial letters before anyone even reads the requests themselves. Presented with these facts, Judge Reed O’Conner, a federal judge in Texas, called the Navy’s rejection of the servicemembers’ requests “pre-determined” and a far cry from “the individualized review required by law.” He ordered the Navy to abandon its sham review process and give the requests a fair shake.

To be sure, the court decided the case under the rubric of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which do not have direct application to private employers. However, many employers have faced an increasing volume of religious exemption requests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pressures of maintaining a safe work environment while minimizing employee attrition might tempt employers to “fast-track” these requests by issuing blanket approvals or denials. The requirement under Title VII that employers reasonably accommodate workers’ religious beliefs and practices dictates that private employers avoid such an approach. The best strategy is to create—and consistently follow—a written accommodations policy that provides for case-by-case review consistent with EEOC guidance. An individualized approach avoids the problem the Navy created for itself and helps prevent difficult precedent for future accommodation requests.

If you need help crafting, updating, or implementing your religious accommodations policy, reach out to one of Sherman & Howard’s Labor & Employment Group attorneys.