Citing Religious Beliefs To Avoid COVID-19 Vaccine Could Cost You Your Job
As more and more employers demand that their workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, more and more workers are finding religion. Or rather, “sincere religious beliefs” which, they say, prevent them from getting vaccinated.
Hundreds of Los Angeles firefighters have requested waivers of the city’s vaccination mandate for religious or medical reasons, and thousands of Los Angeles Police Department employees are expected to follow suit. And they may be at the forefront of the wave of workers seeking exemptions as the federal government prepares to require employers with 100 or more workers to order vaccines or weekly coronavirus tests for all employees. . Federal employees must already be vaccinated even if they are working from home, with no testing alternative, and a similar requirement is being developed for federal contractors and subcontractors.
Nicholas De Blouw, an employment law attorney and partner at Blumenthal Nordrehaug Bhowmik De Blouw in Los Angeles, said he got “daily” calls from people facing a vaccination warrant – including three in about 20 minutes on Wednesday morning.
But what are the rules surrounding religious exemptions? What constitutes a “sincere” belief? And how much leeway do employers have in the face of a torrent of requests for exemptions based on religion? The Times spoke to experts in labor and religious rights, and here are their answers to these and other questions.
What is the legal landscape?
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of vaccine mandates over 100 years ago, but made it clear that employers cannot flout the religious beliefs of their workers. The protections for religious objectors are found in California law, the US Constitution and federal law, particularly Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires private companies to make “reasonable accommodation” for them. workers who “sincerely” have conflicting religious beliefs. with vaccination.
Employers who hope to stand on a solid legal footing should review each employee’s claim and go through an interactive process with the employee to seek reasonable accommodation for genuine beliefs.
“This process is really essential,” said Mark Phillips, partner at Los Angeles law firm Reed Smith. Employers can’t dismiss a request for a religious exemption out of hand, “although that might sound ridiculous at first,” Phillips said. The employer must dialogue with the worker “not only to know the nature of the request, but also to determine whether an accommodation is possible and reasonable”.
What kinds of beliefs might be admissible?
Angel James Horacek, a lawyer in Culver City, said that California’s ban on discrimination based on “religious belief” applies not only to beliefs based on the teachings of an organized religion, but also to “religious beliefs”. , observances or practices, that an individual has sincerely and which occupy in his life a place of importance parallel to that of the religions traditionally recognized.
There is always a limit to what constitutes a religion, Horacek said in an email. In a 2002 ruling that held that veganism was not a religious belief, a California appeals court stated three factors: a religion addresses “fundamental and ultimate questions”, consists of “a system of beliefs as opposed to a isolated teaching “and” often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.
Employers can ask for details of the religious belief underlying the accommodation request and determine whether the objection is based on politics, ideology or medical concerns. And if the employer denies the request and the worker takes legal action, the onus will be on them to establish that they were motivated by a sincere religious belief.
Nonetheless, said Phillips, “it is not a good idea to question the sincerity of someone’s religious belief.” Horacek agreed, saying there isn’t much an employer can do to verify a worker’s claim is genuine.
It doesn’t matter whether the person follows the teaching of their faith – leaders of the vast majority of organized religions have endorsed at least some of the COVID-19 vaccines available. “You don’t take what their organized religion believes,” Phillips said. “An individual’s personal religious belief may differ from their organized religion. “
Douglas Laycock, distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia, added Douglas Laycock: “The courts are not in a position to rule on the official teaching of the Church anyway. There are many issues that church members disagree with, and many cases where the objector pushes the teaching beyond the church.
What is “reasonable accommodation”?
The question here is what it would take to minimize the risk posed by an unvaccinated employee. Could the person work from home, or do the work in a private office, or maintain minimal contact with other workers and the public? Is there other similar work that the person could do remotely?
For private employers, accommodation is not “reasonable” if it imposes an undue financial or operational burden on the company. This is an ill-defined standard, so the answer will depend on factors such as the nature of the hosting and the size of the business.
It’s important to keep in mind that if your employer demands vaccination against COVID-19, your religious objection, no matter how sincere, does not guarantee that you can keep your job. The employer is obligated to try to find a way to keep you at work unvaccinated, but whether that is possible depends on what you are doing.
For example, if you can’t work from home, can’t socially distance yourself from coworkers or clients, and can’t be tested frequently enough to ensure the safety of those you come into contact with, your employer may have reasons. to replace you. “If you can’t perform the essential functions of the job even with housing, then there is no housing that is going to help you,” Phillips said.
Two other factors are the extent to which workers interact with their coworkers and the public and the nature of those interactions, he said. Another is the rate of coronavirus transmission among people in this workforce – the higher the rate, the stronger the argument against an exemption.
De Blouw noted that employers have a legal obligation to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. If they don’t need vaccinations and an employee is infected at work and dies, De Blouw said, they could be held accountable.
What about the public interest?
Laycock, who has described himself as “one of the strongest academic advocates of religious exemptions in the country,” nonetheless argues that Los Angeles officials would have a solid legal basis if they rejected all warrant exemptions. except those necessary for medical reasons.
“The government has a compelling interest in demanding vaccination against a deadly infectious disease. Court cases are essentially unanimous on this, ”he wrote in an email. “The unvaccinated overwhelm our hospitals and deprive others of necessary medical care, and since no vaccine is 100% effective, they spread disease to vaccinated people, causing minor problems for many and many of them. killing a few. “
Other lawyers disagree, arguing that, like any other employer, the city should meet individually with each of the hundreds of employees requesting exemptions to determine if they could be reasonably accommodated.
Additionally, the Biden administration has blurred the lines of what employers need to do to protect the public, making vaccination mandatory for federal workers and contractors regardless of their size, but allowing an alternative to testing for private employers with 100 or more workers, and requiring no tests or vaccinations for workers in other private companies.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.