Vaccine Mandates and Religious Exemptions

Religious liberty experts equip people of faith with legal resources about religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.

Many of our supporters have reached out because they or someone they know are facing an employer vaccine mandate, yet they have objections to the COVID-19 vaccine.

It isn’t a theoretical exercise in medical ethics. For them, it is an unthinkable choice—violate their conscience and submit to a medical treatment against their will or be unable to put food on the table for their families.

Regardless of one’s personal views on the COVID-19 vaccines, the increasing number of vaccine mandates is deeply concerning and undermines one of the most basic and widely-recognized principles of medical ethics—informed consent.

The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 2.1.1 recognizes informed medical consent to medical treatment as “fundamental in both ethics and law.” It explains that “patients have the right to receive information and ask questions about recommended treatments so that they can make well-considered decisions about care.”

Should the health care workers hailed as heroes for their tireless work through the pandemic now be fired simply because they don’t wish to consent to a vaccine after carefully weighing the burdens, risks, and expected benefits of all options, including forgoing the vaccine?

While Kentucky law does not currently require employers to give their employees complete medical freedom, there are federal protections available for those with religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine.

For those facing vaccine mandates at work that have religious exemptions, we hope that this free legal resource from First Liberty Institute will be helpful. First Liberty is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans.

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What Title VII Protects

Title VII prohibits employers (private and governmental) that employ 15 or more employees from engaging in discrimination, harassment, or retaliation on the basis of religion. Employers must provide a “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs and practices—unless the employer can demonstrate that it is unable to do so without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business…

In the context of COVID-19 and vaccines, EEOC Guidance states that an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment, and suggests that masking, social distancing, and periodic testing could be within the parameters of reasonable accommodations for unvaccinated employees, depending on the type of work the employee performs.

…If an employer states that they will not allow any religious accommodations, regardless of the employee’s specific situation (not taking into account the specifics of an employee’s job assignment and the available accommodations), the employer’s vaccine policy may discriminate on the basis of religion in violation of Title VII…

In addition, Title VII protections apply to religious beliefs and practices even if those beliefs and practices are not recognized by any organized religion. The test under Title VII’s definition of religion is whether the beliefs are, in the individual’s “own scheme of things, religious.”

When requesting a religious accommodation, the employee need not use any “magic words,” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII,” but the employee should provide enough information so that the employer is aware that the employee’s religious beliefs conflict with the employer’s vaccine requirements.

Employer Requests for Additional Information and Clergy Letters

Generally, employers should assume that an employee’s request for a religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. But sometimes an employer reasonably needs more information about a religious accommodation request. In that case, the employer may ask the employee some follow up questions, and the employee should be willing to discuss his or her religious beliefs. EEOC guidance states that, when determining whether there is a conflict between an employee’s religious beliefs and the employer’s vaccination requirements, it is irrelevant that the employer does not think that the employer’s requirements actually conflict with an employee’s religious beliefs, nor does it matter whether most people of the employee’s faith would agree with the employee’s religious beliefs—it is the employee’s own religious beliefs that are relevant.

In addition, sometimes an employer will ask the employee to submit a letter from the employee’s clergy or faith leader to help show the employee’s sincerity. If an employer has reasonable doubts as to the sincerity of an employee’s beliefs, employees should provide information that addresses an employer’s reasonable doubts. In cases where an employee can easily get a letter from clergy, the employee may do so, but is not required. Verification of the sincerity of an employee’s beliefs need not take the specific form of a letter from clergy or fellow congregants. In other Title VII cases, courts have accepted verification of religious beliefs from the written testimony from previous supervisors or community members who were aware of the employees’ religious practice or belief.

Reasonable Accommodations

As you approach your employer asking for a religious accommodation, you should carefully consider what accommodation you would accept. For example, several employers have accommodated employees who have religious objections to having the vaccine injected into their bodies by instead requiring them to submit to regular testing, temperature checks, physical distancing, and/or masking.

In sum, Title VII applies to the vast majority of public and private employers, and it requires that these employers accommodate employees who have a sincerely held religious objection to the vaccination unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. To receive an accommodation, you should make your request in writing.

For more information and sample religious accommodation requests, visit:
firstliberty.org/vaccine-protection-kit/

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