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Can I Refuse My Employer’s Mandate to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine Based on Religious Grounds?

September 6th, 2021
COVID Vaccine, religious accommodation

Living through a global pandemic has taught society and individuals many lessons. Although we all have a role to play in moving forward and the best way to do that is through vaccines, not everyone is okay with putting a vaccine in their body.

Now that vaccines for the Coronavirus (COVID-19) are widely available, many people who wanted one, got one. But there is still an effort to vaccinate more people to help avoid future outbreaks. Therefore, we are now seeing many private businesses push vaccine mandates. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently stated that employers may be able to require vaccines of their employees without violating anti-discrimination laws. However, a religious exemption still exists. If your company is requiring you to get vaccinated but you have a legitimate religious belief, you must know that you have legal rights and can push back.

Title VII

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer must provide an employee with reasonable accommodation if the employee’s sincerely held religious belief prevents them from getting a vaccine. This means that employers need to make exceptions to a vaccine requirement for employees who have a religious belief that may prevent them from getting a vaccine.

But what does an employer have to accommodate? And how do they determine whether the employee’s religious belief is sincere? Conversations with Human Resources may be necessary.

Sincerely Held Religious Belief

Under Title VII, religious belief is a very broad term. An employee may not need to be a member of an organized religion or regularly attend services. A religious belief could be as vague as having a moral objection to putting chemicals into the body.

Determining Employee’s Sincerity

For employers, it is a best practice to assume the employee making the request is doing so for a sincere reason. However, if an employer has reason to believe that the reason is not sincere, they may conduct a fact-finding investigation. The employer may request that the employee provide additional documentation, which may include a signed statement about their religious belief. For an employee, this can feel like a sensitive area that borders on discrimination. But it is important that every employee knows that they have legal rights that deserve protection.

Making a Religious Accommodation

If an employer determines the employee’s religious beliefs are sincere, they must make reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation is one that is small or does not place a financial burden on the employer. To use the words of many courts, a reasonable accommodation cannot cause the company undue hardship.

But a company also has a responsibility to keep the workplace safe for all its employees. If an employee poses a risk of infection to other employees, especially those who might be immunocompromised, the company may face undue hardship to accommodate one employee for religious reasons.

This undue hardship, however, does not mean the company can simply terminate the employee with the religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine. The business may keep the employee on staff but require that the employee work remotely and not enter the company’s physical location. This would still be an accommodation, even though it may not be exactly what the employee wanted.

Denying a Religious Accommodation

Outright denial of religious accommodation requires a showing by the employer that they would face undue hardship by accommodating the employee who refuses to take the COVID-19 vaccine. To prove undue hardship, the employer must show that the accommodation requested by the employee would cause more than minimal financial cost or burden to the company.

As discussed above, companies have the responsibility to keep workplaces safe for all employees. Vaccine mandates are intended to protect workers and create a safe environment for all employees. Accommodating an employee with a religious belief may require the company to shoulder more than a small burden. It may also put other employees at risk of infection.

For an employee requesting the religious accommodation, they may need to accept a compromise. Understanding that their objection to the vaccine could put others at risk is important so long as their own workplace rights are protected.

Case-by-Case Basis

Overall, religious accommodation decisions have been made on a case-by-case basis. This means that any employee requesting a workplace accommodation because of a sincerely held religious belief against COVID-19 vaccines should have their request reviewed and determined individually.

Certain businesses, such as restaurants, bars, retail stores, and gyms, may be in a better position to require vaccinations than other businesses where employees generally work remote. Because these businesses interact with customers in person and frequently, the possibility of spreading infection increases if there are unvaccinated employees. This could also result in fewer customers visiting the business, causing a reduction in business profits.

In this example, a business may have a legitimate claim for undue hardship. But this claim should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, making a determination based on the circumstances of both the employee and the employer.

Employer’s Risk

When an employee makes a request for religious accommodation, the employer should take that seriously and assume the employee is being honest. But even if a company plans to go ahead with mandating vaccines for its employees, they need to be aware of the potential legal liability they face.

If a company sets a policy, it is usually written down and in a place that all employees can access. Whether that is an intranet or a physical bulletin board, policies should be provided to employees so they know what is expected of them. An employer mandate to get the COVID-19 vaccine should similarly be a company policy that is written and provided to all team members.

As with any company policy, there are potential ramifications for employees who violate the policy. Violating a company’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate policy may result in an employee being terminated. If the employee has a legitimate reason for not getting the vaccine, their termination may amount to wrongful termination, and they may have a valid legal claim against the company.

Above all, businesses should consider what is best for them and their employees. Mandating vaccines may seem like a good idea for society as a whole. But if an employee approaches with a legitimate concern about the vaccine, one based in honest and sincere religious belief, the company should listen to the employee. The company should also be certain that they give adequate consideration to the employee’s concerns before making any potentially egregious business decision.

As an employee with a sincere religious belief that may prevent them from taking the COVID-19 vaccine, it is important that they understand they have rights. Even though a company mandates vaccines for their employees, that does not mean that exceptions to that rule are nonexistent. But many employees do not know they have this option available to them and, even if they do, they are unsure of how to exercise their rights. The right lawyer could provide the support and guidance the employee needs.

Philadelphia Employment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C., Fight for Your Rights

If your employer has mandated that you get the COVID-19 vaccine but you have religious objections, it is vital that you know your rights before speaking with your employer. If you have a legitimate religious concern, your employer may need to make a reasonable accommodation based on your religious grounds. If they refuse, you may have a valid legal action against them. To have your case reviewed and get legal guidance to help you understand your rights, speak with the Philadelphia employment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C., stand ready to help you. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.

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