How to Handle Religious Objections to a Workplace Vaccination Mandate
Employers implementing mandatory Covid-19 vaccination programs must manage and, in some cases, respond to requests for exemptions. Legal exemptions from compulsory vaccination include medical exemptions under the Americans with Disabilities Act and exemptions based on sincere religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and equivalent state laws for two federal statutes).
Medical exemptions are subject to objective documentation from health care providers (who may risk penalties for failing to adhere to accepted medical practices), but there is no readily verifiable basis for determining whether the religious objections of an employee with mandatory vaccinations are sincere and subject to workplace accommodation.
Legal outlines of religious objections to vaccination
The EEOC The guidelines regarding religious objections to mandatory vaccination require employers to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with sincere religious beliefs, practices or observances that prevent an employee from being vaccinated against Covid-19, unless a accommodation does not place undue hardship on the employer.
Before an employer balances religious accommodation with undue hardship in the workplace (such as implementing mask wear, social distancing, or alternative working conditions), the employer must first check whether the employee’s religious objection is, indeed, a sincere belief.
While federal and local laws may differ with respect to religious practices protected by law, the EEOC guidelines define religion broadly and protect beliefs and practices with which employers may be unfamiliar. Therefore, employers should normally assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on genuine religious belief.
An exception to this assumption exists, however, if an employer is aware of objective facts that call into question the sincerity of the belief claimed by an employee. If these facts exist, the employer may request additional information to support the exemption claimed.
What is not a sincere religious belief?
There is no uniform definition of “religion”, but it is generally accepted that a “religion” is based on beliefs that address fundamental questions about the meaning of life, the nature of mankind and its place in the universe, and the general exercise of faith.
Personal philosophies or beliefs about vaccines are not considered a religion. Lifestyles, such as veganism, pacifism or minimalism, also do not provide a basis for religious exemption.
If an employee requests a religious exemption based on a personal philosophy, the employer can legitimately request more information or question the claimed religious belief. Likewise, requests that are too generalized to be understood, such as the assertion that “my religion” prohibits vaccination, justify a request for additional information to validate the exemption.
To complicate this investigation, unlike medical accommodation, no objective source validates a claimed religious exemption. Vanderbilt University Medical Center has posted a helpful resource on vaccinations and religion. But this guidance does not replace the requirement that employers engage in an interactive discussion with employees to determine whether an exemption is warranted.
A model for religious exemption surveys
Employers generally have no reason to inquire about an employee’s religious faith, except for good faith inquiries regarding Sabbath Keeper schedules, religious dress requirements that affect an employer’s uniform, safety or other work-related requirements, and the requirements of health care providers. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has led many employers who have adopted mandatory vaccination policies to face, most for the first time, sensitive conversations about religious issues.
Employers adopting mandatory vaccination policies should designate trained human resources staff to participate in these conversations. Those responsible for these discussions should conduct them objectively. Like other workplace policies, exemption requests must be handled in a consistent manner, employees must be encouraged to communicate with the employer, and exemption requests must be processed in a timely manner and discreetly.
A template of questions that are asked of each employee requesting a religious exemption is helpful. Questions that ask the employee to identify the religion on which the religious exemption is based and the length of membership can provide sufficient information to analyze the exemption.
A simple question worded as “whether the claimed religion prohibits the Covid-19 vaccine or vaccination in general” is correct in this context, although employers should understand that there may be sincere religious beliefs that might not align on the central tenets of a religion.
“Religious” exemptions based on misleading claims
Some information circulating publicly is based on inaccurate information that purports to support religious exemptions. For example, some individuals have claimed that their faith forbids vaccination against Covid-19 because vaccines are made up of cells from aborted fetuses. These “facts” are patently false and employees who raise these claims should be directed to scientific data which shows these claims to be unfounded.
The factually incorrect rumor (upon which some religious exemptions are based) that the Covid-19 vaccines themselves contain fetal cells or DNA is refuted by actual fact sheets for the NOT A WORD, Moderna, and Pfizer vaccines which clarify that none of these ingredients are found in these vaccines, although some vaccines have been developed or tested with scientifically verified cell lines.
Major religious leaders have also issued statements in favor of compulsory vaccination. Pope Francis recently issued a statement urging everyone to take the Covid-19 vaccine for the ‘good of all’ and the Vatican doctrinal office announced that it was “morally acceptable” for Catholics to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
And although there is not a single similar authority for the Jewish faith, it is a commonly accepted Jewish religion. preceptthat protecting one’s health (and the health of the community) is a mitzvah, who orders to take the Covid-19 vaccine as part of social responsibility.
Religious discussions are a sensitive topic in the workplace and having these discussions in the context of a global pandemic in which a vaccine plays a role does not make these discussions easy or straightforward. But applying a sensitive approach to these claimed exemptions should yield a consistent and careful result.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Jen rubin is a member of Mintz practicing employment law and is also a member of the firm’s ESG practice group. She advises clients from various industries on issues such as adherence to wages and hours and maintains a strong testing practice, with a focus on class actions, trade secrets and professional mobility litigation, and advocacy against discrimination, reprisals and other disputes arising out of the employment relationship.