Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Claiming A Religious Exemption For Vaccines Or Masks? Here's What You Need To Know

 Lots of folks don't want to wear masks and/or get vaccinated. Almost daily I get inquiries about how to claim religious exemptions for them. 

I don’t know of any religious exemptions for masks. I've never heard of any religion claiming they are not allowed. I'd love to hear from you if you know of one. Some religions do object to the vaccines. However, even ChristianScientists don't have an official policy for them, so it is not very many religions. Catholics internationally object to none, but American Catholics in some areas object to Johnson & Johnson. Even then, it is allowed if it's the only one available. Mostly, I am hearing from people in some more obscure Christian sects that say they are not allowed to be vaccinated.

Here are some things to think about if you are claiming a religious exemption. A company may ask a question like this to follow up a claim of religious exemption:

Please describe above the manner (if any) that the same religious beliefs that are the basis for your objection to the COVID-19 vaccine impacts or informs other aspects of your life or manifests itself in other ways of your life. Please be as specific/detailed as possible.

If your employer asks this, they are looking for examples other than the COVID vaccine relating to, for instance, believing the human body is the temple of God, not wanting the skin to be marked, not wanting to pollute or defile the body, or not using chemical substances to boost the immune system.

Some ways to answer this:

  • Can you give examples such as not having been vaccinated, or not being vaccinated since a conversion, not taking antibiotics, or not taking any supplements to boost the immune system, etc? 
  • Is there a doctor who can confirm you refused such treatments when ill? 
  • Do you also decline alcohol and other similar substances?
  • Do you refrain from having tattoos?

They are looking for specific examples, not Bible passages or long rants. If you can show that you have been consistent, then you will likely succeed and be granted a religious accommodation. They might require an alternative, such as masking or remote work instead.

In Florida, all you have to do is fill out one form for a vaccine exemption, and they have pre-filled what you need to provide. All it says is, "Pursuant to section 381.00317, Florida Statutes: I hereby declare that I decline the COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious belief, which may include a sincerely held moral or ethical belief." Other states have similar forms that simplify the claim of a religious exemption.

However, while the Florida form is very basic, you'd best have a good answer if your employer finds out you've had other vaccines, or otherwise have been inconsistent in your application of those beliefs. While they can't fire you for claiming an exemption, they can still fire you for lying.

The other issue with a religious exemption is that an employer can claim allowing it will cause a hardship. And a hardship isn't that difficult to prove for a religious accommodation. All they need to show is more than a de minimis cost or burden on business operations. 

So claiming a religious exemption is not something I recommend unless you truly have a religious objection, rather than a personal or political one. If you have a sincere religious belief against vaccinations, then go ahead and request a religious accommodation, but expect that they will require other protective measures or claim an undue hardship and fire you.

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I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.