Can Employees Claim “Religious Exemption” from the COVID-19 Vaccine?

While employers are navigating the legal ramifications of requiring staff members to be vaccinated, one catch might be the “religious accommodation” that employees could claim to opt out of the vaccination requirement.

But it’s not as easy as just saying, “Vaccinations are against my religion.” Here’s what the law says.

Which law provides religious exemption from vaccines?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says employers cannot refuse to “accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.”

Let’s break this down by key terms.

Religious Beliefs: This includes theistic (belief in God), as well as non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs that pertain to life, purpose and death. In contrast, social policies, political stances, economic philosophies, and personal preferences are not considered religious beliefs.

Sincerely Held: By definition, religious beliefs incorporate “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief.” While this definition is not limited to traditionally organized religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.), employees do need to sincerely believe and practice their religion. Claiming a religious exemption is not simply a convenience to escape inoculation.

What can employers do if they doubt an employee’s sincerely held religion?

Employers are typically advised by the EEOC to assume an employee’s religious accommodation is sincere. If, however, you have a bona fide doubt that the employee has a religious exemption for the requested accommodation, it’s within your employer rights to request additional information. This request may be satisfied by simply asking the employee about their beliefs, observances, or practices.

What might be considered a “bona fide doubt” about an employee’s religious accommodation request?

According to the EEOC, any of the following factors may create doubt about an employee’s sincerely held religious belief:

  • If the employee has behaved inconsistently with the professed belief.
  • If the employee might be seeking an exemption because of a desirable benefit for secular rather than religious reasons.
  • If the timing of the religious accommodation is questionable. (Should there have been previous situations when the employee would have needed a religious accommodation for this claimed belief?)
  • If the employer has reason to believe the employee isn’t being honest about needing a religious accommodation.

Again, employers who question the legitimacy of an employee’s professed religion may request additional information about the faith.

What can you request from the employee as additional information about their faith?

If you question the employee’s belief to be “sincerely held,” the EEOC has identified the following information that may be requested:

  • Oral statements, an affidavit, or other documents describing the employee’s beliefs and practices, including information about when they embraced the religion, as well as when, where, and how they have adhered to the belief, observance, or practice; and/or,
  • Oral statements, affidavits, or other documents from potential witnesses identified by the employee (or employer) as having knowledge about whether they do or don’t adhere to the belief, observance, or practice at issue. This may include information from the employee’s religious leader (if applicable), fellow adherents (if applicable), family, friends, neighbors, managers, or coworkers who may have observed the employee’s past adherence (or lack thereof). 

Requested information doesn’t have to take any specific form. Failing to cooperate with the employer’s reasonable request may lead to the employee not receiving their requested exemption. On the other hand, employers who unreasonably request “excessive corroborating evidence” may risk a religious harassment lawsuit. Please contact your Stratus.hr HR Expert for guidance.

Could a religious exemption be against all vaccines or solely against the COVID-19 vaccination?

It would be difficult to claim a sincerely held religious belief that segments out the COVID-19 vaccine from other immunizations instead of an absolute objection to all vaccinations. Some religious groups rely on faith and prayers to be healed, making vaccines in general unnecessary.

If employees have received other vaccines, could they claim a religious exemption only against COVID-19?

While religious beliefs could change with time, the answer to whether an employee qualifies for a religious accommodation is based on their sincerely held religious beliefs or practices at the time, not their vaccination history. However, if you believe an employee is claiming a religious exemption simply to avoid being vaccinated, follow the guidance above and ask for more information.

What should you do if an employee genuinely has a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine, but the position requires employees to be vaccinated?

According to the EEOC, if an employee cannot be vaccinated and the employer cannot make a reasonable accommodation by changing their work environment and/or job duties, the employee may be asked to seek employment elsewhere. However, before automatically terminating the worker, please contact your Stratus.hr HR expert to walk you through other applicable federal, state, and local laws.

For more questions about your scenario, please contact your Stratus.hr HR expert or email HR@stratus.hr.

Cariann Lieske, SHRM-CP

Author Cariann Lieske, SHRM-CP

While Cariann used to run an office, she is now focusing her career on Human Resources. When she’s not helping others resolve their employment issues, Cariann can be found wedging her way through an obstacle race or chauffeuring her husband for another 50-miler.

More posts by Cariann Lieske, SHRM-CP