Across the country, some employees are calling for a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine. Legal experts explain what it takes to get an application approved.
WASHINGTON – Millions of Americans have already rolled up their sleeves to get the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine. And globally, the number of people who get vaccinated runs into the billions.
But across the country, there are many who oppose the vaccine on religious grounds and demand a religious exemption. That includes in DC, where 475 city workers have requested a religious exemption, including 419 firefighters.
One such person is Will Jones, who defines himself as a “disciple of the teachings and example of Yeshua”. He said his objections were due to the fact that vaccination rates were lagging in developing countries, compared to the United States.
Jones singled out the African continent, which has a single-digit vaccination rate according to the WHO, compared to DC, which has a vaccination rate well over 70%.
“It’s an incredible disparity in terms of life-saving health interventions,” he said. “Because we know, especially if you’re at high risk, that it’s something that can save lives.”
To check out the ins and outs of this complicated issue, we spoke with a trio of legal experts, in order to break down the process of accepting or denying these requests.
What are the steps to obtain a religious exemption?
- Lawrence O. Gostin, professor at Georgetown Law School
- Peter H. Meyers, Professor of Law Emeritus at GWU Law School
- Matt Mihalich, lawyer at the law firm of Tully Rinckey
The process will be slightly different, depending on your employer and the specific circumstances. In general, a request for religious exemption can be considered, provided it is “sincere” although an employer is allowed to ask questions to try to assess its seriousness.
If an employer accepts the exemption, an employee may be granted “reasonable accommodation” if possible. The employer can deny the request if it is found to be insincere, in which case the employee can challenge the decision in court.
Step one: request an exemption
If it is believed that the vaccine would violate their religious beliefs, they can apply for an exemption from their employer.
Our experts said the main question would come down to whether a request for a religious exemption is “sincere”.
“Definitely if the person is really sincere,” Gostin said. “In that, it would hurt their – you know – the basic religious values of getting the vaccine, I can respect and admire that. But it will be a very, very narrow exemption.”
Step two: gagging sincerity
Finding out if a belief is genuine can be difficult for an employer. That’s why Mihalich said employers are allowed to investigate any request.
“Your employer is allowed to ask you questions to find out whether you sincerely believe it or not,” he said. “And try to get more information on this.”
Meyers said employers will be able to verify whether a person’s beliefs seem consistent with past behavior.
“Someone can’t wake up tomorrow morning and say – ‘oh, my personal religion is against the COVID vaccination,'” he said.
Mihalich said a precedent, relating to religious exemptions, was set during the days of active military conscription, when many people used their religious objections to withdraw from service.
“During these investigations,” he said. “During these cases, the prevailing norm was that anything that casts doubt on the veracity of this assertion of religious sincerity is relevant.”
Gostin specifies that this investigation period will be shorter or longer, depending on the employer.
“Some will be very generous,” he said. “It will allow an exemption if you ask for one. And others will be much more stringent, and they will look at whether or not it is a real exemption.”
Third step: a decision is made
Ultimately, the employer will have to make a decision. If the religious exemption is accepted, they will need to provide “reasonable accommodation” if possible to the employee. This reasonable accommodation could include regular testing or working from home if possible.
“If you are able to show that your belief is sincere,” he said. “so it’s a conversation about how to adjust to this religious belief.”
If the employer decides that the belief is not sincere, it can choose to reject the religious exemption request. If the employee continues to refuse the shot, it could result in termination.
Fourth step: Litigation
Our experts said the next step could be litigation if an employer decides to fire the employee who refused the vaccine.
“Like so much in America, it ends up in the courts,” Meyers said. “So I would expect, like many other issues, that this issue would ultimately be decided by the judges.”
Mihalich said an employee will have a particularly good argument in court if the employer does not engage in a process, to try to assess sincerity.
“If they don’t,” he said. “If they don’t engage in this interactive process. If they summarily fire you, as soon as you say the word religion or when you talk about it, then I think it’s absolutely time you needed to talk to a lawyer and take this to court. ”
Gostin said the last word will likely be with the judge hearing the case.
“At the end of the road you can still go to court,” he said. “But the court would give the company’s decision great deference, as long as it was not entirely unreasonable.”
Fight the mandate; Why Will Jones Speaks Out
For months, Jones and some of his colleagues argued that a reasonable accommodation for people with religious objections would be to allow regular testing as an alternative to vaccination.
“If there was no way to test this,” he said. “It’s a completely different conversation. But we have tests. The tests are very effective. The richest people in the world have been using these tests to keep themselves safe for a year.”
Jones has so far said he has not received a response regarding his exemption request. He said he saw some of the negative social media posts about the 419 firefighters who requested this exemption.
“I hope – you know – that people can see,” he said. “And extend grace to others. And believe that people have spiritual beliefs which may be different from what they themselves have.”
Jones said he will continue to fight warrants, which he says could lead to the sacking of many firefighters if they are enforced.
“I will stay as long as possible to fight for my job,” he said. “If they fire me, if they take away the ability to work here, then that’s what happens. I will continue to fight for my job.”