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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

How To Claim A Religious Accommodation For COVID Vaccines

 First of all, let me say that I'm a big believer in the COVID vaccines. They work. That being said, if you have a real religious reason (not a political reason) for seeking an exemption to the vaccine, here's what you need to know.

EEOC just updated its guidance on this issue, so if you are serious about seeking a religious accommodation under Title VII, I suggest you read it. Here are some of the key points:

Be ready to answer some questions. EEOC has its own internal form that employers and employees can use as an example. Employers might have their own forms to fill out. Here are the questions EEOC has for its own employees to answer on the form:

1) Please identify the EEOC requirement, policy, or practice that conflicts with your sincerely held religious observance, practice, or belief (hereinafter "religious beliefs"). 

2) Please describe the nature of your sincerely held religious beliefs or religious practice or observance that conflict with the EEOC requirement, policy, or practice identified above. 

3) What is the accommodation or modification that you are requesting? 

4) List any alternative accommodations that also would eliminate the conflict between the EEOC requirement, policy, or practice and your sincerely held religious beliefs.  

What is a sincerely held religious belief?: "EEOC guidance explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. However, if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information. See also 29 CFR 1605."

What are alternative accommodations?: "An employee who does not get vaccinated due to a disability (covered by the ADA) or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance (covered by Title VII) may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, as a reasonable accommodation, an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace might wear a face mask, work at a social distance from coworkers or non-employees, work a modified shift, get periodic tests for COVID-19, be given the opportunity to telework, or finally, accept a reassignment."

What are the employer's duties regarding an accommodation request?: "Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship. Employers also may receive religious accommodation requests from individuals who wish to wait until an alternative version or specific brand of COVID-19 vaccine is available to the employee. Such requests should be processed according to the same standards that apply to other accommodation requests."

Can the employer say no?: "Under Title VII, courts define “undue hardship” as having more than minimal cost or burden on the employer. This is an easier standard for employers to meet than the ADA’s undue hardship standard, which applies to requests for accommodations due to a disability. Considerations relevant to undue hardship can include, among other things, the proportion of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with non-employees, whose vaccination status could be unknown or who may be ineligible for the vaccine. Ultimately, if an employee cannot be accommodated, employers should determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities before taking adverse employment action against an unvaccinated employee."

"If an employee’s objection to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement is not religious in nature, or is not sincerely held, Title VII does not require the employer to provide an exception to the vaccination requirement as a religious accommodation." 

What can they ask about my religion?:  "However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information. An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable requests for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief, practice, or observance risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation."

The sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs, practices, or observances is usually not in dispute. The employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.” Section 12-I.A.2: Religious Discrimination (credibility and sincerity). Factors that—either alone or in combination—might undermine an employee’s credibility include: whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance); whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (for example, it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

The employer may ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious beliefs, practices, or observances conflict with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. Although prior inconsistent conduct is relevant to the question of sincerity, an individual’s beliefs—or degree of adherence—may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held. An employer should not assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of the employee’s practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of the employee’s religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices but not others. No one factor or consideration is determinative, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.

So, when they ask about your religious belief, you need to give specifics. If you say that you believe the body is a temple that you are not permitted to pollute with chemical substances, or that your religion prohibits all vaccines, you will likely need to provide examples. So can you give examples such as not having been vaccinated since you joined this religion, not taking antibiotics, 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 eating processed foods and drinks that contain non-organic chemicals? This is the kind of information they are looking for. If you really do follow specific limitations in your medical treatment or consumption of chemicals, then you probably have a legitimate religious exemption. 

Does it have to be a traditional religion?: "The definition of “religion” under Title VII protects both traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs, practices, or observances, including those that may be unfamiliar to employers. While the employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because it is based on unfamiliar religious beliefs, practices, or observances, employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief, practice, or observance and should not assume that the employer already knows or understands it."

Some traditional religions do object to the vaccines. However, even Christian Scientists made an exception for them, so it is not very many religions. Catholics internationally object to none, but American Catholics in some areas object to Johnson & Johnson. 

I sincerely believe vaccinations are bad. Is that a religion?: "Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views or personal preferences. Thus, objections to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement that are purely based on social, political, or economic views or personal preferences, or any other nonreligious concerns (including about the possible effects of the vaccine), do not qualify as religious beliefs, practices, or observances under Title VII. However, overlap between a religious and political view does not place it outside the scope of Title VII’s religious protections, as long as the view is part of a comprehensive religious belief system and is not simply an isolated teaching."

And then there's Florida: Florida has passed a law banning private corporations from mandating vaccines in the workplace unless they allow exceptions that include religion (as mentioned above, federal law already has exemptions for religion). The law details how to claim each exemption, and imposes fines on employers for noncompliance. Here's the form to claim an exemption in Florida. Other states have similar exemptions. If an employer in Florida does not accept an employee's properly completed exemption form, violations can be reported to the Attorney General. The Attorney General has the authority to impose fines for such violations:

  • Up to $10,000 for private entities employing less than 100 people
  • Up to $50,000 for private entities employing 100 people or more
Public employers, including educational or governmental institutions, are prohibited from imposing COVID-19 vaccination mandates. Violations for public employers can be reported to the Florida Department of Health through VaxPassFreeFL@FLHealth.gov.

Even with Florida's lax standards, if your employer catches you in a lie about your "sincerely held religious beliefs," you can be fired, so I suggest being serious about this. Don't claim a religious belief if you don't have a real one.

I guess watching Fox News is arguably being part of a cult, so maybe there's an argument there for a religious exemption. But seriously, get the vaccine if you can. If you don't have a medical or sincere religious reason, just get it. 

If you have a sincerely held religous belief against the vaccines, you might want to talk to an employee-side employment lawyer in your state about your rights.

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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.