Most employers have likely had discussions about whether and when to require employees to become vaccinated, or what to do if the vaccine mandate announced by President Biden (applicable to all employers of 100+ employees) becomes law.
Even if federal law makes vaccinations mandatory, it is likely that the law will continue to recognize potential exemptions for both medical and religious reasons. Medical exemptions will largely be based on severe allergies to specific vaccine components and/or a serious adverse reaction to a first vaccine dose.
Employees will also be able to request an exemption from the vaccine requirement on religious grounds if they have a “sincerely held religious belief or practice” that causes them to decline vaccination. Employers need to be aware of what constitutes a “religious belief” or practice, and how to properly assess the sincerity of the belief or practice before approving or denying the request.
It is important to understand what the law will recognize as a religious belief or practice:
- not only beliefs and practices associated with well-known religions like Christianity and Judaism, but also those associated with less commonly held beliefs like Rastafarianism or Wicca.
- individualized interpretations of religious doctrine that may be at odds with the leaders of the religion. For example, even though the Pope supports vaccination, a practicing Catholic can still successfully claim a religious exemption if his/her belief is “religious in nature” and “sincerely held.”
- even highly individualized beliefs outside of any common system may be recognized so long as the beliefs are “religious in nature.” Such beliefs typically concern “deep and imponderable matters” such as “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.”
In general, political objections and objections to the safety and/or efficacy of the vaccine are not objections that are “religious in nature” and hence will not qualify for a religious exemption to a vaccine mandate.
If the belief is religious in nature, the employer must then determine whether the belief is “sincerely held.” Federal government guidance indicates that employers should assume sincerity at the outset. However, given the seeming prevalence of non-religious objections masquerading as religious objections, employers may be justified in taking a more cynical view.
The assessment of sincerity should be based on a written narrative from the employee that explains the objection to vaccination and the religious basis for that objection. Employees may, but are not required to, provide documentation from religious leaders and other types of documentation to support the objection.
After obtaining the documentation:
- If the employer is satisfied that the employee’s belief is both religious in nature and sincerely held, then the employer should approve the request and move on to determining if an accommodation can be made that does not cause an undue hardship to the employer.
- If the narrative does not support the request (i.e., the objection is based on politics or fear of side effects), the request may be denied.
- If the narrative is not clear as to the sincerity of the belief or its religious nature, the employer may interview the employee or request additional documentation. The employer may wish to ask whether the employee has been vaccinated previously and if so, under what circumstance. The employer may also ask about the history the employee’s religious practice and how that practice influences the employee’s daily life, or even for statements from friends, relatives, or religious leaders with whom the employee has discussed the religious nature of his or her objection.
As always, a clear, consistent policy and thorough documentation are effective tools in navigating this issue.
If you have questions about how COVD-19 affects your workplace, contact Nicole Gardner or Erin Ball.