Religious Exemptions and the Law
As courts respond to challenges to Biden's various vaccine mandates, many employers have established policies requiring Covid vaccines. Many employees, however, will have medical or religious reasons for not receiving these vaccines and will need to put their employers on notice of their need for an exemption from their workplace vaccination requirement. The purpose of this blog is to summarize the law and apply it to requests for religious exemption from vaccination. This post is not comprehensive; it will not apply to all situations and it is in no way to be construed as legal advice.
If you object to vaccination because it conflicts with your sincerely held religious beliefs, you will want to start by researching your individual state employment laws. Georgia is an employment-at-will state which means that the employee or the employer can terminate the employment for almost any reason that is not “wrongful.” There will be little state protection for employees seeking accommodation for religious beliefs in at-will states. Under federal law, however, almost all employees are protected from discrimination in employment by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII applies to all employers with 15 or more employees and prohibits them from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. Under the statute, employers are required (under most circumstances) to offer their employees religious exemptions from vaccination.
Title VII defines religion as “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.” The definition of “religion” has been the subject of much litigation. The courts have clarified that religion does not require a belief in God, it need not be “correct,” provable, logical or supported by a pastor or other religious leader. It is clear that religious views are protected by the statute, but political, sociological or philosophical views are NOT.
Title VII requires an employee to give the employer notice of the need for religious accommodation from the workplace requirement. There is no special language or form that is required. The employee need only let the employer know that an accommodation is needed and that the employee is requesting the accommodation because of a conflict between religion and work.
An accommodation is just an adjustment to the work environment that will alleviate the conflict between the work requirement and the employee’s religious belief. Title VII requires that the employer make “reasonable accommodation” for the employee’s beliefs, but the employer is not required to incur any undue hardship. While undue hardship is a defense for employers, if an employer has accommodated a medical exemption for one employee, it would likely be deemed discrimination for that employer to then deny a request for a religious exemption from another employee.
If the employer has a reason to question the sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs, the employer may make a “limited inquiry” to determine if the belief or practice is sincerely held and gives rise to the need for accommodation. Typically, an employer would have no reason to doubt an employee’s claim. Here are examples of factors that may weaken an employee’s claim (these aren’t always dealbreakers):
- Past inconsistent behavior (like prior vaccines)
- Whether there is another desirable benefit of the accommodation
- The timing
Remember that an individual’s beliefs can evolve over time and as information is gained. Beliefs change.
Writing your Religious Exemption
Your request for accommodation for your religious beliefs should state your religious belief and how that belief contradicts vaccines. You should also have a final statement that clearly indicates that because of your religious belief, you cannot get this vaccine. You should NEVER use a religious exemption from the internet.
Your belief must be of a religious nature and it must be sincere. It need not be a part of an established or accepted religion. Your belief need not be logical or reasonable and does not need to be true or provable and it does not require a belief in God. Your pastor or religious leader does NOT have to agree with you. One court has stated that religious beliefs typically concern “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose and death.” Social, political or economic philosophies or personal preferences, are not religious beliefs that are protected by Title VII.
There must be a clear conflict. This cannot be implied – it must be clearly stated. And it must be a conflict – not a preference.
These examples are over-simplified but you should get the idea. You will need to add support and/or personal experiences or details. If you are Christian, you will likely want to include some Biblical references in support of your beliefs.
Step 1: State your religious belief in your own words.
Example Belief 1: I believe that man was created in the image of God and is perfectly designed.
Example Belief 2: I believe that God will protect me from future illness.
Step 2: State how your religious belief contradicts vaccination.
Example Contradiction 1: Giving a vaccine to a healthy person says that the human body is flawed and not perfectly designed by God.
Example Contradiction 2: Getting a vaccine would violate my faith that God is protecting me from future illness.
Step 3: State clearly that because of your religious belief, you cannot get this vaccine.
Example Conclusion 1: I am unable to take this vaccine because I believe that it would defy that the human body is created perfectly by God and in his image.
Example Conclusion 2: I cannot violate my faith and deny God’s protection of me by getting this vaccine.
Things to Avoid or to Use with Caution
- Avoid medical/science terms:
“Immune system” – it may be preferable to say “God’s protection”
- Legal terms
- Safety Issues or Vaccine Injury or EUA status
- Government Corruption or anything that sounds political
- Avoid controversial/political references such as “gene therapy” instead of vaccines
- Terms like “toxic” or “unnatural” – we are exposed to toxins and unnatural substances regularly
- Vaccine Ingredients – except aborted fetal cells
- Health/lifestyle – be careful not to include health or lifestyle terms or phrases as they are not your religious beliefs (except for vegan/vegetarian – if this choice relates to religion – i.e. wrong to kill animals)
Aborted Fetal Cell Argument
If you are opposed to abortion, you should most definitely include this in your exemption. If you are looking for an exemption for all vaccines and not just Covid vaccines, you should have another belief that would cover vaccines that do not utilize aborted fetal cells. Keep in mind that it is likely that a Covid vaccine will be developed in the future that will not utilize aborted fetal cells.
If you have Bible passages to support your belief, use them, but you must explain them if it is not obvious. Keep it simple and direct. The more information you provide, the more questions to be asked.
While Title VII does not require an employee to use a form, if your employer gives you a form or provides a link for submission, there is no reason not to use it if it allows you to state your belief and how that belief contradicts vaccination.
Some employers are “requiring” forms that appear to be setting traps for the employee. For instance, questions about previous vaccines or current/past medications. It is important to remember that when making an initial request for accommodation, the employee is only required to put the employer on notice of their belief and how it contradicts vaccination. AFTER that, the employer may make a “limited inquiry” IF the employer HAS REASON to question the sincerity of the employee’s claimed belief. So, what should an employee do when faced with a form of this type? Some attorneys are suggesting using the space to simply restate your belief and how it contradicts vaccination. Another option, if submitted in writing, would be to write “see attached” and then attach your statement to the form. It is probably best not to leave any blanks – even writing, “see attached” without ever directly addressing the question would likely be the better option. If attempting to answer these types of question, remember that your beliefs change as you gain information. If the employer tells you that the Mountain Dew you are drinking was later tested using aborted fetal cell lines, you can put the can down and never drink it again due to the conflict with your sincerely held religious beliefs. There are no solid answers here as this is all uncharted territory.
Before responding, resigning, appealing – get some legal counsel. You will want to take whatever steps are needed to preserve any potential legal claim. Contact an attorney immediately. It’s possible a strong letter from an attorney could make an employer reconsider.