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As an employer, do I need to accommodate all religious exemption applications?

When an employee practices a religion or holds a religious belief that does not permit them to receive vaccinations, they have an obligation to inform their employer in order to be exempt from a mandatory vaccination policy. If an employee requests an accommodation based on a religious exemption, employers may ask the employee to fill out a Vaccine Exemption Form that affirms their belief and acknowledges the risk of not being vaccinated to oneself and others.

A Vaccine Exemption Form sets out the reason the employee believes they qualify for an exemption. It provides strong documentation for both the employee and employer about the request for an exemption. Employers may benefit from using a Vaccine Exemption Form as part of both the formal Vaccination Policy and Anti-Discrimation Policy in their workplace. These policies should be part of the Employee Handbook in most cases.

However, just because an employee requests an exemption does not mean that an employer always has to grant it.

Review each religious exemption application carefully.

Every application or request should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Consistency in the review process is important, so it is a good idea to dedicate one person or department to review applications with a standard set of requirements.

Employers should generally consider three questions when reviewing applications:

  1. Is this an acceptable religion?
  2. Is this religious belief sincerely held?
  3. Can an accommodation be made?

When determining whether a religion is acceptable, keep in mind that religion is a broad concept that encompasses many categories of beliefs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has provided some guidance explaining that it may include traditional religions as well as more uncommon or informal faiths. An acceptable religion might also be a set of strongly held ethical or moral beliefs that are not associated with a specific religion.

Religions are not based on:

  • Social philosophies.
  • Political views.
  • Economic beliefs.
  • Personal preferences.

It can be difficult to determine whether the request being made is based on a true religious belief or just a personal preference. As an employer, err on the side of assuming that a religion is acceptable unless you have reason to believe it is not.

What are my options for handling my employees' religious exemption applications?

When you receive a religious exemption application, you must decide whether to grant or deny it. You do not legally have the option to ignore it.

If you grant the exemption request, you may need to develop a reasonable accommodation.

Facilitate a dialogue with the employee about the type of accommodation that would work for them. In the case of a religious exemption, you might need to involve other parties who have more information about what might be acceptable. A lawyer, religious leader, or expert may be a good resource.

Consider the following scenario: Your place of employment requires all employees to work at one physical location, but the work can be done remotely. If an employee is granted a religious exemption, you and the employee might arrange for them to work from home to avoid being around others.

If you deny the exemption request, be prepared to follow through.

As part of the evaluation process, you can request more information from the employee about their religion or their belief. You may wish to ask for documents that explain their religious preferences and beliefs in order to thoroughly investigate the request. It is a good idea to conduct this type of investigation prior to denying a request.

When denying a request, note that there is no legal requirement under federal law to state a reason for the denial, nor is there any law that requires an employer to tell the employee why if they ask. Additionally, if an employee refuses to get vaccinated after their request for accommodation is denied, an employer should be prepared to follow through with the consequences listed in their policies. 

Many employers have terminated employees or placed employees who refuse to be vaccinated on unpaid leave. Before taking action after refusing a request for an accommodation based on a religious exemption, ask a lawyer to make sure you have complied with the law to protect your business from claims of religious discrimination.

What are reasonable accommodations for religious exemptions?

In this scenario, due to the pandemic, a reasonable accommodation is a change in the employee's working environment that allows them to avoid getting the vaccine but will also keep other workers and customers safe.

An employer is not required to make an accommodation if it is not reasonable. For example, if the employee works as a cashier, a Work from Home Agreement would not be a reasonable option. Alternatively, if an employee is primarily engaged in making phone calls or working on a computer, working remotely may be reasonable, even if there are increased costs associated with that accommodation. Deciding what is or is not reasonable may not always be this clear, and employers may want to consult with a lawyer before rejecting an accommodation request.

What are some accommodations employers can implement for employees with valid exemptions?

Examples of reasonable accommodations for religious exemptions and the COVID-19 vaccine may include:

  • Requiring weekly testing.
  • Requiring masks and social distancing.
  • Adjusting the employee's schedule.
  • Moving an employee's work location away from others.
  • Working remotely or from home.
  • Reconfiguring office spaces.

Every situation is different, so it's important to remain transparent and to include the employee in the conversation when determining the most appropriate accommodation. Employers are not required to provide a specific type of accommodation that an employee requests, but should be open to discussing reasonable alternatives.

What does a valid religious exemption look like?

If a religion is acceptable or a religious belief in declining the vaccination is sincerely held, an employee may meet the qualifications for a religious exemption. This may be difficult to evaluate as nearly all major religions have had faith leaders explicitly state support for vaccination. This will leave most accommodation requests to be based on individual religious beliefs or beliefs held by smaller congregations or groups.

Generally, it will likely be a valid religious exemption if the employee can back up their belief to show that it is more than just personal preference or political ideology. Employers may want to ask a lawyer for help evaluating exemption claims due to the complexity involved.

What should I do if an employee submits a religious exemption application that might not be legally valid?

Employers have the option to seek additional information from the employee to explore whether their request for an accommodation based on a religious exemption is legally valid. Ultimately, if the religious belief is not valid or sincerely held, or an accommodation cannot be provided, a request may be denied.

Since each exemption may be different, it is a good idea to talk through any religious exemptions or accommodation requests with an attorney who can evaluate the specifics of the requests with you. Reach out to a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney for help evaluating claims or establishing policies and procedures for your workplace.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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