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Can I Refuse a Mandated Coronavirus Vaccine Because of My Religious Beliefs?

May 4th, 2021
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As Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccinations continue to roll out, some employees may be struggling with their company’s mandate that all employees must be vaccinated. Companies have the legal right to require employee vaccinations. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces certain federal employment laws, first issued guidance about vaccinations in 2009.  At that time, the H1N1 virus threatened many people. To keep employees safe, the EEOC granted employers the right to require vaccinations.

The EEOC’s guidance is partly based on a 1901 Supreme Court ruling regarding a deadly smallpox outbreak in New England. The Supreme Court ruled that the government can impose reasonable regulations, such as a vaccine requirement during a pandemic. The EEOC has updated its guidance to address the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Employers can still mandate employee vaccinations, and there continues to be two exemptions: employees who object to the vaccine because of religious beliefs, and those who cannot take the vaccine because of a health issue. Some employees whose religious beliefs prevent them from taking a vaccine have sued their employers for religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What Religious Rights Do I Have in the Workplace Regarding Vaccines?

Title VII makes it illegal for employers with 15 or more employees to discharge or discriminate against an employee because of their religion. This includes making any hiring, firing, or other employment-related decisions based on religion. It also prohibits workplace harassment or retaliation because of religious beliefs.

Religion is defined as all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief. EEOC guidance regarding vaccine exceptions for religious beliefs includes the following:

  • Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once an employer receives notice about religious beliefs regarding the vaccine, they must provide a reasonable accommodation.
  • Reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs can include flexible scheduling, job reassignment, shift swaps, and workplace policy modifications.

However, an employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices if it would cause undue hardship to the business. For example, employers do not have to comply under the following circumstances:

  • The accommodation is too costly.
  • It compromises workplace safety.
  • It would decrease workplace efficiency.
  • The accommodation infringes on the rights of other employees.
  • The accommodation requires other employees to do more than their share of hazardous or burdensome work.

Employers often use undue hardship as a defense when employees file a claim of religious discrimination.

What if My Employer Fires Me for Not Getting Vaccinated?

The first step is to hire a lawyer. Being let go because of religious beliefs is wrongful termination. A lawyer can help a victim with their burden of proof in a religious discrimination claim. Employees will need to show many of the following:

  • They had a sincere religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement.
  • They informed their employer of the conflict, but they were disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.
  • They were treated differently or negatively or harassed because of religious beliefs or perceived religious beliefs.
  • Their employer did not attempt to make reasonable accommodations for their religious practices or beliefs.
  • There was a cause-and-effect relationship between the knowledge of the employee’s religious beliefs and the employer’s behavior.

It is important to note that an employee must have a sincere religious belief against vaccinations, not just a personal or lifestyle preference. Mandating vaccines is just one form of workplace religious discrimination. Other discriminatory practices include but are not limited to:

  • Not allowing days off for religious holidays.
  • Prohibiting religious practices, such as prayer, in the workplace.
  • Limiting religious clothing, food, hairstyles, facial hair, and customs in the workplace.
  • Allowing a workplace culture in which people are mocked or harassed for their religious beliefs.
  • Being given a different job or being treated unfairly because of appearance or clothing related to religious beliefs.

A person who is wrongfully terminated has a burden of proof that may be difficult to accomplish. That is why anyone who experiences religious discrimination at work should contact an experienced lawyer for guidance.

What Should I Do if I Believe I was Wrongfully Terminated for Vaccine Refusal?

A lawyer is knowledgeable about religious discrimination, so consulting with one is the best place to begin. The rules, processes, and timelines for religious discrimination cases can be complex, depending on the type of employer, such as public or private, for example, and the nature of the discrimination, as well as state laws.

In Pennsylvania, employees are protected by federal laws and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). This act prohibits employment discrimination against multiple classes of people, including discrimination based on religious creed. It applies to employers with four or more employees. Pennsylvania employees can file a discrimination claim with the federal EEOC or the state’s Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC).

These agencies work together to process claims, so filing with both is unnecessary. A claim made with either agency requires them to notify the employer and begin remedial action. Federal employees and job applicants have a different claim-filing process.

There are timelines to be aware of. Most employees must file a complaint within 180 days of the discriminatory action, but federal employees and job applicants have just 45 days to begin their process. Once a discrimination charge is filed, the EEOC will notify the employer within 10 days. They can then decide to do one of the following:

  • Ask both parties to participate in a mediation program.
  • Ask the employer to provide written answers to charges and questions related to the claim. At this point, the EEOC will turn the claim over to an investigator.
  • Dismiss the claim if it was not filed in time or if the EEOC does not have jurisdiction over it.

If a claim is turned over to an investigator, the EEOC will let both parties know their findings. If the investigators determine that religious discrimination did not occur, they will send the plaintiff a Notice of Right to Sue letter. At this point, a lawyer is needed to prepare for a court trial within the federal or state statute of limitations. Whether through negotiation or litigation, a victim of discrimination can demand:

  • Financial relief, such as reimbursement of expenses and legal fees.
  • Injunctive relief, such as the reinstatement of employment and benefits or changes to the employer’s policies and procedures.

Everyone deserves to work in a safe and accepting environment. If one’s religious beliefs prevent them from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, it is advisable to talk to a lawyer if they are experiencing hardships at work.

Philadelphia Employment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Advocate for Victims of Workplace Religious Discrimination

The knowledgeable Philadelphia employment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. will suggest the best course of action for your case. In the workplace, employees have religious rights, and they may have concerns about mandated vaccines. If you feel you experienced workplace religious discrimination, we can help. Call us at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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