Religious Exemptions to the COVID-19 Vaccination

As COVID-19 continues to infect many across the nation, some Americans are declining protection through vaccination.  While many employers are beginning to require that their employees are vaccinated, some workers are turning to religious exemption as a way to keep their jobs.

**This article is provided for informational purposes only as a service to the public.  The Ritchie Law Firm handles only personal injury, workers’ compensation, medical malpractice, and Social Security disability cases.  While this article provides useful information about religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine, this is not an area of the law we handle nor one about which we will be able to answer questions beyond the information contained in the article. *****

What Can You Do If You’re an Employee Seeking a Religious Exemption?

If you’re considering asking your employer for a religious exemption, you should:

  1. Talk with a clergy member about whether they will support your request.
  2. Talk with your employer about whether they will consider your request for exemption.
  3. Understand that employers have a significant amount of latitude in denying your request for vaccine exemption.

Religious Exemptions in the United States

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act offer exemptions to employees with either a disability or a “sincerely held” religious belief that prevents them from getting vaccinated. As a result of these laws, an employer is required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause an undue burden on the employer’s business.

Employers and Undue Hardship

If a religious exemption would cause an “undue hardship” for an employer, the employer has no obligation to grant the exemption.  But, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted “undue hardship” to mean anything more than simply a minimal expense.  This means that employers don’t need a particularly strong reason to decline a religious exemption.

Exemption Laws in Virginia and West Virginia

Can the government require a person to get a vaccine?

Yes.  Virginia law grants the State Health Commissioner the authority to require any safe immunization in the case of an epidemic.  In West Virginia, authority is given to a state board of health to adopt “rules and regulations to obstruct and prevent the introduction or spread of smallpox or other communicable or infectious diseases into or within the State.”

Can employers require vaccines?

Yes.  Since employment in the United States is typically “at will,” meaning that employers don’t necessarily need a cause to end an employment relationship, employers have a great deal of latitude in establishing working conditions.  Further, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has confirmed that COVID-19 vaccinations do not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Legitimacy of Religious Beliefs

Many times, claims of religious exemption put employers in a position of determining what is a legitimate religious belief and what is a dodge.  Because no major religious denomination in the United States opposes vaccinations outright, employers often are left questioning how to determine if the worker’s request can be met.

Guidance for Employers

It is important to note that even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not given the best guidance about how employers should determine a sincerely held religious belief.  Currently, the employer must engage in a two-sided dialogue to determine whether to approve a worker’s request for exemption.

Many employers have noted a need for consistency.  For example, a human resources department might question a request for a religious exemption if they know the worker has received other vaccines or uses any of the common medications developed with cell lines, such as Tylenol, Tums, Pepto Bismol, etc.

Denominations’ Thoughts on Exemptions

While some Catholics have indicated that they object to COVID-19 vaccinations because decades-old fetal cell lines were used in vaccine research, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to get vaccinated.  Even the Christian Science Church, which typically prefers prayer over medical treatment, has not disavowed the vaccine.

Even though letters from clergy are not necessarily required to claim a religious exemption, some people are questioning the trustworthiness of religious leaders who are offering to attest to the faithfulness of people they’ve never met in exchange for a donation.

Ritchie Law Firm is a personal injury law firm devoted to helping individuals who have suffered serious and catastrophic injuries or lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligence. Ritchie Law Firm serves all of Virginia, while helping clients in cities and surrounding areas of Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, Staunton, and Winchester also serves clients in West Virginia, including Martinsburg, WV.

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