What Must Be Proven To Claim A Valid Religious Exemption From Mandated COVID-19 Vaccine Employee Policies?
There are a number of factors that go into “proving” a claim to religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Any employee who wants to claim a religious exemption from mandated COVID-19 vaccines must first make their employer aware of the request. This involves indicating that they need an accommodation due to a conflict between their religious beliefs and the vaccine mandate.
At that point, if an accommodation solution isn’t immediately apparent, then the employer should engage in an interactive process to discuss the request and what kind of accommodations may be effective for that particular person’s job. At that point, it would be confirmed (or not confirmed) that the exemption/accommodations do not pose an undue hardship or more than just a very minor cost to the employer.
For example, let’s take one of the possible accommodations listed by the EEOC as a reasonable accommodation: periodic testing. If the proposed accommodation was periodic testing at the expense of the employee—let’s say every other day, or once a week—that, in my opinion, would be a reasonable accommodation. It would have very little cost to the employer and would satisfy the requirements under both the religious exemption and a vaccine mandate. As such, a lot of the employees seeking exemption are offering that sort of testing as a potential accommodation under the religious exemption and also under the ADA medical exemption.
What Are The Reasonable Accommodation Provisions Of Federal Non-Discrimination Laws That Could Apply To The Requirement Of All Employees To Be Vaccinated For COVID-19 In The Workplace?
When looking at reasonable accommodations, we first have to look at what the relevant case law or statute says, and what it doesn’t say.
At this point, the particular area of the law dealing with COVID-19 vaccinations hasn’t been fully decided. It will be decided, likely very soon, through the appellate process, but as of right now there is no such source.
The next thing we look through is the EEOC guidelines on reasonable accommodations. The EEOC guidelines are persuasive, but they are not binding. That means that the Courts of Appeal or the District Court isn’t mandated to follow the EEOC guidance. Rather, they are encouraged to use them as a resource in determining what the intent of the law is.
Still, in the meantime, the EEOC has given us some helpful guidelines on what would be considered a reasonable accommodation for COVID-19 vaccine exemptions. The examples given are:
- Wearing a facemask
- Social distancing
- Working from home or remotely
- Working modified schedules or on different projects
- Periodic COVID-19 testing.
Those are some reasonable accommodations posed by the EEOC, which may be available under the religious exemption request or a medical request under the ADA.
How Does An Employee File For A Religious Exemption Or A Reasonable Accommodation Provision To A COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate In The Workplace?
When requesting or filing a religious exemption or reasonable accommodation request, it’s important to remember that there aren’t any magic words that have to be said or a special form that has to be given or a note from your pastor that has to be produced. You simply need to provide notice that you have a need for an accommodation and that you’re requesting that accommodation due to a conflict between your religion and the vaccine mandate necessary for work.
However, if it’s not obviously apparent what type of accommodation that you’re requesting, then an interactive process should begin. It’s often a very informal conversation between the employee and the employer, asking simple questions about how the religious belief or practice conflicts with the work mandate.
Within that conversation, another matter should be discussed: namely, which accommodation that’s reasonable will put the least amount of hardship onto the employer. This could be as simple as the employer reassigning the employee to another part of the workplace so they’re not around people. It could be as simple as allowing an employee to work from home or requiring masking, social distancing, and/or periodic testing.
Those could all be reasonable accommodations that may be discussed in the interactive process between the employer and the employee (or sometimes, between the employee and the HR professional working for the employer).
Still the first step is providing notice, either verbally or in written form. Written notice is probably the better option. You might simply write, “I have a need for religious accommodation because there’s a conflict between my religion and the vaccine-mandated policy that the company has implored”. They may ask you specifics about how which religious beliefs conflict with the vaccine mandate and how, but they can’t give you a religious test in order to claim the exemption.
It should also be noted that claiming a religious exemption does not preclude you from also claiming a medical exemption. I recently had a case where a particular employer denied a religious exemption because the employee had requested a medical exemption (and was denied). However, it’s not one or the other. You can certainly have a medical condition as well as a religious issue with the vaccine mandate, and as long as it’s meeting all the criteria (you have a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with getting the vaccine and/or you have a disability that interferes with getting the vaccine) and it’s not an undue hardship, then employers generally must grant those exemptions.
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