Faith in the Vaccine: Sincerely-Held Religious Belief Exception to the COVID-19 Vaccines
On Monday August 23rd, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and the Moderna vaccine is projected to obtain full FDA approval soon. Many employers have been waiting until full approval to mandate that all employers get the vaccine.
As employers initiate vaccine mandates, they must be aware of and prepared to face objections to the mandate for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs. In fact, with the politically charged nature of COVID-19 vaccines, certain religious organizations and some government officials have been encouraging individuals to object to mask and vaccine mandates based on religious beliefs, and even providing sample letters in order to do so.
What is a sincerely-held religious belief?
Title VII requires employers to provide an accommodation to an employee who raises an objection to receiving mandated COVID-19 vaccines based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. “Religion” under Title VII may go beyond churches or beliefs in any “higher power”—it can include any sincerely held moral or ethical beliefs. For example, a Federal court in Ohio concluded that an employee who practiced veganism could object to a flu vaccine mandate by her employer because the vaccine is made with animal parts that vegans refuse to consume, even though veganism is not typically considered a traditional “religion.”
Much like veganism, some individuals have a sincerely held stance against the COVID-19 vaccine, and it is within the realm of possibility that a court could find that such a sincerely held belief satisfies the very broad definition of religion under Title VII.
How should employers respond to an objection based on a sincerely held religious belief?
Generally, employers should assume that an employee’s religious objection is based on a sincerely held religious belief. Typically, an employer should only challenge the objection if the employer has an objective basis for questioning the objection, and normally, employers should not request additional information or unilaterally contact an employee’s place of worship seeking proof of the employee’s participation. Even if the employee recently joined the religious organization, the length of time the employee observed the religious belief is not conclusive regarding whether it is sincerely held by the employee.
When should an employer deny an accommodation?
Employers must provide a reasonable accommodation unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer, meaning that the accommodation would cause more than a minimal cost or burden on the operations of your business. An accommodation can be an undue hardship if it is expensive, undermines workplace safety, decreases efficiency, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
What should employers do?
Prior to mandating the COVID-19 vaccine, employers should do several things to ensure that they are ready to face the likely increase in religious accommodation requests.
Review policies and procedures
First, the employer’s religious accommodation policies and procedures should be carefully reviewed to ensure that they comply with applicable laws and provide the employer the proper flexibility in considering religious accommodations. Additionally, the language for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate should be closely reviewed to confirm that no language prohibits the availability of a religious accommodation.
Employers should also train their managers and supervisors regarding how to handle a possible request for a religious accommodation because the front-line managers of the employer often receive the initial accommodation request. Without proper training, a violation of the law could arise without human resources or upper management even knowing of the incident.
Clean up the Interactive Process
The procedures for the interactive process with employees should be reviewed to ensure that the proper steps are in place. The interactive process should be thorough and the employer should document every step in the process. As part of this step, employers should also consider possible reasonable accommodations to offer employees should they properly object to the COVID-19 vaccine based on a sincerely held religious belief. Possible accommodations may include mask wearing, social distancing, remote working, or isolating the employee to only a certain area. Of course, such accommodations depend on the job duties and work environment of the employer.
Employers must be ready for a potential rise in religious accommodation requests as they mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their employees, especially as religious institutions and government officials provide tools to individuals to take advantage of religious objections.