Q: What are the employment rights of someone who refuses to get a vaccine? What is a religious accommodation and what is the legal definition of “my religious beliefs”? Can an individual define that or is it limited to church teaching or doctrine?
Generally speaking, an employer can require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to certain restrictions in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Employees who have a sincerely held religious belief objecting to being vaccinated are entitled to ask for a reasonable accommodation from their employer. Title VII protects individual beliefs, not just those that are held by any a denomination or church. Thus, employers cannot restrict religious accommodations to employees who belong to a particular faith or religion.
Further, it is not the role of the employer to determine whether that belief is true or not, only its sincerity. Therefore, an employee who asserts a religious objection that is a member of a faith that does not share that objection may still be entitled to an accommodation.
An employer’s duty to offer a religious accommodation involves a fact intensive inquiry that considers the employee’s work responsibilities, available accommodations, and the nature of the employer’s business. For instance, a hospital may have a more difficult time granting an exemption to its nursing staff than a tech company to its software development team.
Under current law, religious exemption requests requiring anything more than a minimal cost or burden on the employer can be denied. While in many circumstances an employer may be able to accommodate, in others it may not.
Response by Todd McFarland, Esq., Office of General Counsel, Associate Counsel, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
- Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, US Supreme Court (1977). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/432/63.html
- The EEOC has given guidance on this issue that can be found here: https://www.eeoc.gov/coronavirus.