Religious objections to the Covid vaccine may come from ‘the church of one’

Employers should avoid deepening the beliefs professed by workers when raising religious objections to compulsory Covid-19 injections, even if they have neutral faith in or actively endorse the Covid-19 vaccination, have said labor lawyers.

This may mean dealing with demands from Catholic workers, for example, despite Pope Francis publicly urging people to get vaccinated. What matters in such a request is whether a worker’s belief is religious, not whether it deviates from the doctrine of his church or makes logical sense to his employer, the workers said. lawyers.

“You can have a church of one,” said Lauren Kulpa, an attorney at Perkins Coie LLP.

Requests for religious exemptions from workplace policies were relatively rare before the pandemic and focused primarily on issues such as scheduling, dress codes and grooming rules. But the Covid-19 vaccine mandates require companies to be prepared for workers seeking faith-based accommodation to avoid the shot.

Litigation over vaccine warrants has increased in recent months, in part due to the Biden administration’s rollout of Covid-19 firing requirements for federal contractors and healthcare workers, and the jab-gold rule – Occupational Safety and Health Administration test, lawyers said.

Workers have filed at least 20 federal lawsuits under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, challenging employers’ handling of religious accommodations to Covid-19 vaccine mandates within 60 days of the announcement of these. policies by the administration on Sept. 9, up from three filed in the previous 60 days, according to a Bloomberg review of cases.

Some workers, including United Airlines Inc. employees, have filed this type of lawsuit before receiving a letter of right to sue from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or similar state agency, as is normal practice for employees. complaints of discrimination in employment. The EEOC, which enforces Title VII and recently updated its pandemic vaccine waiver guidelines, defines religion in the context of workplace bias as religious, moral, or ethical beliefs firmly and sincerely anchored.

Businesses, however, have a leg up on public sector employers when it comes to dealing with the religious challenges associated with immunization mandates. Businesses don’t have to worry about constitutional claims against inoculation requirements like government entities do.

And employers have a powerful weapon against workers who demand religious exceptions to Title VII. The 1977 United States Supreme Court decision in TWA v. Hardison allows businesses to deny a request for religious accommodation if doing so would cause more than an insignificant burden to provide.

Challenging religious beliefs

Employers may have Hardison have up their sleeves, but it’s still important for companies to learn about workers’ religious beliefs that would stand in the way of Covid-19 vaccination, labor lawyers said.

Some courts, including the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, have said employers have a legal obligation to engage in an interactive process with workers seeking religious exemptions.

Employers should develop a standardized application form that asks a few basic questions, mainly to get workers to express their beliefs and how they conflict with the firing requirements, the lawyers said. The EEOC released a model last month.

But companies should not rigorously question the stated sincerity of a worker’s religious belief, unless they have an objective basis for doing so, the lawyers said. Asking for a religious exemption from a vaccine requirement after unsuccessfully seeking a disability accommodation is one example of such objective evidence, they said.

“Overall, it would be difficult to prove the insincerity as this is a factual investigation that relies on a lot of circumstantial evidence,” said Nathan Chapman, professor of law at the University of Georgia. which focuses on religious freedom.

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“Do what makes the most sense”

Rather than rejecting a request based on a worker’s beliefs that are not sufficiently religious or sincere, it is much easier for a company to refuse the request because it is too restrictive under the Hardison standard, Chapman said.

However, showing that exempting a worker from a vaccination warrant is undue hardship could be more difficult for employers if the United States ever reaches herd immunity levels, Chapman added.

Employers should also consider the costs and benefits of denying accommodation requests, even if they appear to be patently bogus or if their agreement would clearly constitute an undue burden under Hardison, said Patricia Anderson Pryor, attorney for Jackson Lewis PC

The law may be on the side of companies denying claims, but they could still be forced to face the expense and hassle of litigation, she said.

“Prior to that, employers might have had one or two requests for religious accommodation and suddenly they have this great conversion,” Prior said. “There’s this natural frustration about it. But it helps employers take a break, think about what they’re trying to accomplish by turning down a request, and do what makes the most sense.

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John McTaggart

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