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What To Do When An Employee Wants A Religious Exemption For A COVID Vaccine


If you have a private business, you have the right to require that employees be vaccinated for COVID-19. However, the law has a number of exemptions including for those employees who say that getting vaccinated is against their religious beliefs.

Forcing employees to be vaccinated when it is against their religion, and then firing them or punishing them if they do not get vaccinated, can land your business in big trouble. But how do you know what an employee’s religion really does prohibit them from getting vaccinated or when they are just claiming that is the case?

Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

For any kind of protection for religious matters, be it protection from religious discrimination or to have 1st Amendment religious rights, someone must have what is termed as a sincerely held religious belief.

Of course, no court or government wants to get into the details of what is and is not a religion, but courts and the federal EEOC have held that a real religion has to speak on ultimate ideas of life death, ethics and morals, and that those beliefs have to be held with the strength of traditional religious viewpoints.

Courts don’t give protection for ethics, social beliefs, or political beliefs—the refusal to be vaccinated must be religious.

The Employee Must Also be Sincere

Not only must the religion be recognized and sincere, but the employee’s belief in the religion must be as well. You, as the employer, are allowed to ask questions about the religion and the employee’s religious belief—but be careful, as too much questioning, or sounding critical or suspicious, can lead to a religious discrimination claim being filed against you.

You can inquire as to whether the vaccine exemption is sought for religious or just personal reasons, and you can, to some extent, look into the employee’s personal behavior to see if it, in the past, has been in line with the religious beliefs the employee is claiming to have. You can get statements from past employers to confirm this information, if needed.

You also can speak to religious leaders in the employee’s religion to confirm the employee’s beliefs.

You can also look at whether the request for an exemption benefits the employee (for example, an employee who says her religion requires her to work no more than 5 hours a day)—if it does, it may be a reason to be suspicious.

Bona Fide Requirements

There are some professions where no accommodation may be needed, where being vaccinated is a bona fide requirement of the job. Additionally, even if an employee does have a sincerely held religious belief, you can come up with an accommodation for the employee (for example, working remotely, or requiring negative COVID tests or the wearing of a mask).

Call the West Palm Beach employment law attorneys at Pike & Lustig today if you have a question about your employees or employee relations.




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