October 13, 2021

Your God vs. Your Job: Assessing Religious Accommodations for Employer-Mandated COVID-19 Vaccination

4 min

Picture this: Your business has implemented a return-to-office directive, coupled with a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy that requires all employees to be fully vaccinated unless they have a religious or medical exemption. One of your employees, "Scott," requests an exemption on the grounds that his religious beliefs prevent him from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Scott offers two explanations. First, he believes that his god will punish him if he injects any substance into his body, and states that he therefore rejects all vaccinations. Second, he says he cannot be vaccinated because his religion forbids abortions, and each of the three FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines used fetal cells in the "proof of concept" testing (but not in the manufacture of the vaccines themselves). In assessing his exemption request, can you challenge Scott on the theological basis of his assertions? Can you request a supporting letter from his clergy? Can you investigate the sincerity of his assertions? The answers are often "maybe" and "kind of."

Religious accommodation can be a thorny issue for employers, as the realm of covered beliefs is wide. Under Title VII, the term "religion" encompasses "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief"; an employee need not subscribe to a traditionally-recognized or commonly-held belief system for his or her religious practices to be protected. This means that, generally speaking, an employer cannot debate the underlying theological basis for an employee's belief. If Scott says that his house of worship is his neighbor's garage, and he gathers there with five people to practice an obscure ancient faith that has no written doctrine, it is likely that you must take that representation at face value.

Rather than assessing whether an employee's religion is itself independently verifiable, the accommodation analysis under federal law often considers whether the employee's religious belief is "sincerely held." This issue is also fraught with risk for the unwary employer, as inquiry into sincerity is warranted only where an employer has an objectively reasonable basis to question it. Let's assume that Scott only raised his religious objection to you this week, but the local news channel interviewed him at a protest a week before your organization imposed its mandatory vaccination policy; during that interview, he said that he opposed employer-mandated vaccination due to a politically-motivated stance about individual freedom to choose. Against this background, you can likely investigate whether Scott's proffered religious belief is in fact sincerely held, or whether he is simply asserting that belief as a ruse to dodge your new vaccine mandate.

So what questions can you ask Scott, and what documentation can you ask him to provide? While you can likely request that an employee in Scott's circumstances supply an independent verification regarding the religious belief at issue—including, for example, a letter from the clergy member who leads services—an employee's inability to provide such a letter is not dispositive to the inquiry if he or she can provide other evidence.

Here, Scott has stated that his religious belief prevents him from injecting anything into his body; you may therefore want to inquire whether he has taken other common vaccines or received any intravenous treatment in the past. Because Scott has claimed he cannot receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to the fetal cells used in its testing, you may want to ask whether he has taken one of the dozens of over-the-counter medicines—including many for pain relief and sinus problems, as well as certain antacids—which also use fetal cells for testing.1 You can also require Scott to attest to or certify his responses to these questions, which may deter him from providing false information. His responses to these inquiries will shed some light on whether he has consistently abided by the religious doctrine he is proffering. If there are sufficient inconsistencies in Scott's previous behavior, this can factor into whether you decide to approve his requested accommodation.

Any employer who seeks to actively engage an employee on a religious belief respecting vaccination must tread carefully, as the assessment is a nuanced process. For questions about religious accommodation in the COVID-19 era, please contact the authors of this article or any other attorney in Venable's Labor and Employment Group.

[1] Of course, if an employee provides information about his or her underlying medical conditions or disability in response to such inquiries, employers must treat such information as a confidential medical record and take steps to prevent its disclosure.