The COVID-19 pandemic has caused considerable confusion among employers and employees. In addition to balancing health and workplace safety with the need to maintain productivity, employers also have to understand the laws around vaccine mandates.
Today, we’re going to look at religious exemptions to the vaccine. When are they allowed? And not allowed?
Let’s dig deeper into the issue and give some examples to help guide you through the process.
Can a Business Deny an Employee a Religious Exemption to the COVID-19 Vaccine?
A business can deny an employee a religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccination if it will cause the company undue hardship.
Undue hardship is essentially anything that imposes more than a minimal burden (“de minimis” burden) on a company, like putting other employees at risk or incurring costs.
Religious exemptions can also be denied if the employee’s religious belief isn’t sincere. Sincerely held beliefs are moral or ethical beliefs about what’s right or wrong that have the strength of traditional religious views.
Religious practices, however, don’t need to be part of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, or other more well-known religious groups to be considered sincere. Religious observances that aren’t part of a formal organization are accepted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
In fact, the Supreme Court has said, “…religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others to merit First Amendment protection.”
Since it’s harder to prove an employee’s faith isn’t sincere, most employers look at whether the exemption would cause an undue hardship.
When deciding on a requested accommodation, businesses should consider the cost first and foremost and whether having unvaccinated workers would directly threaten their company.
Federal Law on Religious Accommodations
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for sincere religious beliefs unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. (That includes accommodations for vaccination requirements.)
Sincerely Held Religious Belief Examples
Some examples of sincerely held religious beliefs include:
- Holidays: Observing a holiday, like Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan
- Prayer: Adhering to a specific prayer schedule
- Dress: Maintaining a style of dress
- Head Covering: Wearing a yarmulke, hijab or another type of head covering
Religious Belief Cases—How It Works in the Real-World
This all may make sense in theory, but how does it work out in the world? The easiest way to understand this law is to look at how it’s played out across various settings. So, let’s dive in!
Dahl vs. Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University
During the pandemic, athletes at Western Michigan University sued the school after the university ignored their religious objections to getting the Covid-19 vaccine. The players said the vaccine was against their Christian beliefs.
While the university argued that its vaccination policy was neutral toward religion, the school barred them from competing without a Covid-19 vaccination.
The court ultimately sided with the student-athletes, although the school could ask them to wear masks.
Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Commission
An instructive example of religious discrimination in court is a case out of California that set the bar for these issues.
Evelyn Smith, a Christian, refused to rent an apartment to an unmarried couple, claiming religious reasons. The couple filed a complaint with the Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC), alleging discrimination.
In Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Comm., 12 Cal. 4th 1143, 1166 (1996), Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar found that the renter’s marital status did not place an undue burden on Smith’s business, among other findings supporting the couple.
Friedman v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group
As we stated above, religious beliefs must be sincerely held, but they are not limited to the traditional ideas of organized religion. In Friedman v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, the plaintiff’s “sincerely held belief” was veganism, i.e., eating no animal products whatsoever.
The man received a job offer from Kaiser with one small caveat: he had to submit to a mumps vaccine. The mumps vaccine is grown in chicken embryos, to which the plaintiff objected based on his religious beliefs.
Freidman said on record that he “…fervently believes that all living beings must be valued equally and that it is immoral and unethical for humans to kill and exploit animals, even for food, clothing and the testing of product safety for humans, and that such use is a violation of natural law.”
He ultimately lost his case as the California court ruled that the plaintiff’s beliefs do not address fundamental or ultimate questions, like the meaning of life.
While employers should always assume that an employee's religious beliefs are sincere, if there is doubt (like there was in this case), they should collect information and be prepared to defend their stance in court.
Like we said earlier, most employers tend to avoid questioning if a belief is sincere and, instead, examine whether an accommodation would cause them undue hardship.
Best Practices for Dealing with Religious Accommodation Requests
As you can see from the court cases above, every situation is different. However, there are some best practices you can follow to make your life a little easier. They include:
- Be consistent: Develop a COVID-19 vaccination accommodation policy and process where, for example, all employees must submit the same documentation to be considered.
- Communicate: Ensure the process for requesting accommodation is clear to all employees. It should be an interactive process where both team members and managers can ask questions. An employee’s request should be responded to promptly.
- Consider each request individually: Employers should consider each religious accommodation request based on context. For example, employers can look at whether an employee has close contact with others when making a decision about the vaccine.
- Document: Carefully document all requests for religious accommodation. If denying a religious accommodation request, have evidence to back up your claims.
Cover Your Bases with Religious Accommodations
To wrap it up: If an employee asks for a religious exemption from the vaccine, you don’t instantly need to honor it. Take a step back and think about whether it will cost your business money, make you lose out on revenue, or force you to restructure your business.
You can also consider some alternative accommodations, like frequent testing for employees who aren’t vaccinated.
Keep in mind that under federal law, any retaliation is illegal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or other relevant agencies involved in protecting workers' rights in this area (e.g., the ADA or the state labor department) could bring legal action against employers that levy consequences on team members for requesting religious accommodations.
The best thing you can do? Cover all your bases. That means working with your human resources department to create a consistent policy, documenting everything and making sure all employees are treated equally.