In an era where the COVID-19 vaccine has become politicized, many employers are simply brushing off their employees’ requests to be exempted from their vaccine mandates that all employees receive a vaccine as nothing more than a bad-faith effort to avoid getting vaccinated. While it is true that many people attempt to avoid receiving the vaccine for improper reasons – this ultimately deprives a small portion of the population of their legal rights. This article will briefly discuss the law surrounding religious vaccine exemptions.
An employee claiming a religious exemption from an employer’s vaccine mandate must pass multiple thresholds. The first threshold is do you have a true religious belief that prohibits you from receiving the vaccine; the legal system uses the term “sincerely held belief.”
Under Federal Law, a “sincerely held belief” “includes moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” The law further defines the term “religion” as including all aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief. It is important to understand that religious beliefs are not the same as personal beliefs that are “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical.” Thus, when requesting a religious exemption from an employer’s vaccine mandate, it is imperative that you assist them in arriving at the proper outcome by making it clear that your opposition to the vaccine is strictly based on your sincerely held religious beliefs.
Assuming your employer determines that you have a “sincerely held religious belief” that prevents you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, or at least believes it is possible, you are not automatically exempted from the vaccine; the Employer now carries the burden of engaging in what is known as the “interactive process.”
During the “interactive process,” the Employer is required to engage in a good-faith discussion. This discussion is designed to accommodate your religious exemption, while allowing you to continue working.
During the “interactive process,” you should be prepared to answer probing questions about your faith, and how it prohibits you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Unfortunately, many people claim exemptions they are not entitled to. As a result, your employer has every right to weed out the legitimate requests from the illegitimate requests.
Assuming your responses are satisfactory, your employer is required to accommodate your religious exemption if possible.
Examples of accommodations, in this context, may include:
However, if your employer can’t accommodate you either because the accommodation would be unreasonable, or because the accommodation would cause your employer an undue hardship (remote work isn’t feasible and their clientele is classified as high-risk for COVID-exposure). You may be placed on leave notwithstanding your “sincerely held religious belief.”
As noted at the beginning of this article, many employers have been inundated with requests for exemptions, and have essentially thrown out the baby with the bathwater – because there are so many improper requests, they assume all requests are improper, and deny meritorious requests in the process.
If you have made a legitimate request for a religious exemption, and your employer improperly dismissed that request. Then they have failed to engage in the interactive process, and may be liable for religious discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).
Alternatively, if your employer did engage in the interactive process, but ultimately decided to place you on leave, they may still be liable from religious discrimination under FEHA. The question is, was the interactive process was conducted in “good-faith,” or was it a farce with a predetermined outcome.
Under FEHA, an employer is prohibited from taking “adverse employment actions” against their employees based on, among other things, religion. “Adverse employment actions,” in turn, are employment decisions which materially, and adversely, impact an employee’s working conditions.
Possible adverse employment actions are:
If, after reading this, you believe your employer improperly disregarded your bona fide request for a religious exemption, contact Frontier Law Center today for a free consultation. If your rights have been infringed, Frontier Law Center will fight on your behalf. Call (877) 423-1444 now or contact Frontier online to schedule a free consultation about how to proceed with your case.