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How employers judge religious exemption requests

As they impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates, company leaders across the country are facing a flood of requests for religious exemptions

Religion and politics are typically taboo topics in the workplace. But employers these days are increasingly asking questions about both as they respond to requests for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Such requests have piled up this fall despite the fact that faith leaders from a variety of traditions support vaccination. Religious objectors to COVID-19 vaccines often express concern about the use of fetal cells in their development. Fetal cells are not present in the actual vaccines.

“My explanation was that ‘Human life is sacred. The Bible tells you that your body is a temple. The vaccine is made from aborted fetuses. The mandate is directly affecting my religious beliefs.’ And that’s it,” said Brittany Watson, a nurse who received a religious exemption from the health system she works for in Virginia, to NPR.

Although federal law offers some workplace religious freedom protections, it does not require employers to approve every faith-based accommodation request.

Company leaders can turn down requests that would pose an “undue hardship” on the business or other staff members, wrote legal scholar Doug Laycock for The Conversation last month.

“The Supreme Court has interpreted undue hardship to mean anything more than a minimal expense, meaning employers don’t need a reason anywhere near as strong” as what the government needs to deny religious liberty claims, he said.

Laycock believes that, under current precedent, employers could make a successful case against offering any religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. However, few company leaders have taken this approach, at least in part because doing so would break political and business norms.

“Many employers and governments alike have been reluctant to challenge religious exemption claims,” Laycock wrote.

This hesitancy helps explain why some employers approve all or nearly all requests for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. Before the pandemic, such an approach didn’t feel that risky, Laycock noted.

“When it comes to vaccines against childhood diseases, where the danger did not seem great or immediate, many groups have just taken people’s word for it if they say their religious views prevent vaccination,” he wrote.

But today, as communities struggle to contain the spread of the delta variant and protect medically vulnerable people, including children, some companies are rethinking their past permissiveness. It’s becoming more common for employers to ask follow-up questions about workers’ vaccine views in hopes of determining whether their concerns are sincere and based on religious beliefs, rather than political ones.

“Employers can request additional information from the employee, such as asking whether they take other medicines that also used fetal cells in their development, like Tylenol or Motrin,” NPR reported.

That’s one of the questions listed in a draft memo for Coast Guard chaplains that was obtained by the Deseret News last month. The document instructed the chaplains to learn more about service members’ religious practices and beliefs in their meetings with those who’ve filed exemption requests.

“Note any comments made by the member that make it appear they are using the religious exemption as a ruse to avoid the vaccine,” the document said.

Sometimes, workers will bring a letter from a religious leader to their employer that outlines their beliefs, although such evidence is not required by employment law. The letters “can help bolster claims that religious objections to the vaccine are sincere,” The New York Times reported.

In response to growing interest in these letters, some churches and pastors have made them available for download on their website. “An independent evangelist in Texas is offering letters to those who request them. In California, a megachurch pastor is offering a letter to anyone who checks a box” confirming they’re a practicing evangelical Christian, the article noted.

Faith-based organizations have also published guides aimed at helping workers answer questions about religious teachings and vaccines.

The rise of resources like these — as well as the fact that no major religious tradition has spoken out against the COVID-19 vaccine — helps explain why many Americans are skeptical of requests for religious exemptions. Forty-six percent of U.S. adults believe religious objectors should not be allowed to sidestep mandates, according to a June survey from Public Religion Research Institute.

Those who are frustrated about religious exemptions may be comforted to know that workers who receive them are rarely treated the same as their vaccinated peers. Companies often require these employees to work remotely or, if they need to be in the office, to get tested regularly and wear a mask.

In general, company leaders try to find solutions that ensure the worker will “not be a direct threat to others,” said Alana Genderson, an attorney specializing in labor and employment law at the firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, to NPR.

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