Employers that mandate a Covid-19 vaccine booster may be hasty to deny a religious exemption request from an employee who complied with an initial mandate.
However, doing so may run afoul of federal and state law, creating liability for employers. No exception in Title VII permits employers to automatically deny an accommodation request to a booster mandate because the employee received the initial series of that same vaccine.
Instead, employers must process requests for religious accommodations according to the requirements of Title VII, regardless if the request seeks to exempt a booster mandate.
Thus, employees who demonstrate that taking the booster violates their sincerely held religious beliefs or practices are entitled to reasonable accommodation, even where they have received the initial series of the same vaccine.
Burden of Proof
In demonstrating a sincerely held religious belief, as noted in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s compliance manual, “The Supreme Court has made it clear that it is not a court’s role to determine the reasonableness of an individual’s religious beliefs,” and that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
While this avoids undue intrusiveness in reviewing a request, it is still the employee’s initial burden to show that their objection to receiving the booster is religious and sincere.
To meet this burden, employees must sufficiently articulate why they received the initial vaccines but can no longer do so based on sincere religious beliefs.
For example, employees may have temporarily allowed the fear of losing income to overcome their faith. These individuals are still entitled to the protections of Title VII.
Sincerity of Belief
A temporary crisis of faith doesn’t necessarily undermine the religious nature or sincerity of a person’s beliefs because, as the EEOC explains, prior inconsistent conduct isn’t dispositive of a person’s sincerity.
A person’s religious beliefs can be sincere, even though inconsistently observed, and as the EEOC explains, “a sincere religious believer doesn’t forfeit his religious rights merely because he is not scrupulous in his observance,” citing a federal appellate decision that stated, “where would religion be without its backsliders, penitents, and prodigal sons?”
Alternatively, employees, since receiving the vaccine, may have had life-changing experiences that led them to a newfound faith, strengthened existing beliefs, or provided spiritual clarity.
Or they may have uncovered new information about the vaccine that was previously unknown. These examples illustrate that it is the employee’s current beliefs that entitle the employee to the protections of Title VII.
Employers shouldn’t ignore that religious belief systems are seldom all or nothing. Religions are nuanced, and adherents may draw distinctions that may not seem logical to others. As the US Supreme Court explained, religious beliefs do not depend on whether they are “acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others.”
Or as a traditionally liberal federal appellate court explained, an employer cannot impinge on sincere religious belief by showing that “as an objective matter, the plaintiff’s belief is not accurate or logical.”
This is why employers may not deny employees’ requests for religious accommodation because they disagree with how employees practice their faith. Employers don’t have the right to decide if employees have properly understood what their religion requires.
The law thus requires that employers “should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief” even when the employee requests a religious accommodation to a booster mandate.
Employers that systematically deny religious accommodation requests to a booster mandate are failing to comply with federal law and employees in that situation should contact competent legal counsel to address this violation.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Aaron Siri is managing partner of Siri & Glimstad and represents clients in a wide range of complex civil litigation matters, with a focus on civil rights involving mandated medical procedures, class actions, and high-stakes disputes.
Allison Lucas is partner at Siri & Glimstad and focuses on civil litigation including matters involving mandated medical procedures and obtaining exemptions to mandated medical procedures.