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What You Need to Know About Religious Vaccine Exemptions & Accommodations

Covid-19 vaccine vials in a row on blue background. One vial standing out from others under spotlight.

In light of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine's recent approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), vaccination mandates are ramping up across the country. Employers and universities are requiring that people get the vaccine as a condition of continued employment or enrollment.

For some, these mandates conflict with a sincerely held religious objection to the vaccine. If you are facing a vaccine mandate from an employer or other entity, the law provides you with some protection, but you need to tread carefully in order to protect your rights.

Requesting a religious vaccine exemption

The first step in this situation is to request a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate, formally and in writing. There are two things to keep in mind in your exemption request.

1. Make sure the request reflects your own beliefs, in your own words

Presenting a letter from your priest, pastor, rabbi, or another member of the clergy will not help you obtain a religious exemption. Legally, it's not a question of whether your religious leader or denomination opposes vaccines or vaccine mandates. It's a question of whether you have a sincerely held personal religious belief that requires an exemption. In other words, what your pastor believes is only relevant to your pastor's own request for an exemption. The government is not interested in adjudicating whether people are obeying the rules of a particular organized religion, only in assessing whether the individual requesting an exemption has a sincerely held belief.

The single goal of a request for exemption is to convince the person reviewing the request (who may not share your faith, or even understand it) that you sincerely believe what you say you believe. Go into as much detail as you can. Cite Scripture or other relevant texts. Be direct about what you believe and why you have no choice but to refuse the vaccine because of your deeply held beliefs.

2. Stick to your religious reasons only

You may have other concerns about vaccine mandates or the vaccine itself, but those concerns have no place in your request for a religious exemption. If you mention any objections to the vaccine other than your religious beliefs, your employer could argue that your religious objection is pretextual — that is, you are asking for a religious exemption to "game the system" when your real reasons are not religious in nature (and thus not protected by law in the same way). Don't let those additional concerns muddy the waters. Stick to your one, core message: the vaccine conflicts with your sincerely held religious beliefs.

This applies to both the request for the exemption itself and your response if your request for an exemption is challenged. Simply repeat that you have a deeply held religious objection to the vaccine. Reiterate the points you made in your initial request for an exemption. Don't discuss the safety or efficacy of the vaccine itself. Stay on message until your exemption is granted.

Requesting a religious accommodation

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers are required to accommodate employees' sincerely held religious beliefs, including religious objections to vaccination, so long as the accommodation is not an "undue hardship" for the employer.

As such, in addition to proving that you have a sincerely held religious objection to the vaccine, you need to show that accommodating your lack of vaccination would not pose an "undue hardship" in the context of your job. Your employer is not required to accommodate you in the exact way you request, but they are required to engage in an interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation that is no more than a minimal cost or burden. Depending on the nature of your job, accommodation for a vaccine exemption may involve personal protective equipment, change of physical location, or remote work.

An attorney can stand up for your legal rights

People of faith have rights under federal law, and those rights must be respected. Unfortunately, some employers and institutions may not see it that way. If you have a sincerely held religious belief regarding vaccination that an employer is refusing to accommodate, don't hesitate to reach out to an experienced attorney who can protect your legal rights.

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