“For good or bad, COVID-19 has changed the way we navigate the world and the way in which ‘we the people’ exercise our rights. As a result, we find ourselves grappling with issues that touch on deep-seated moral, political, religious and personal questions for which there may be no clear-cut answers,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “One thing is clear, however: while the courts may defer to the government’s brand of Nanny State authoritarianism, we still have rights. The government may try to abridge those rights, it may refuse to recognize them, it may even attempt to nullify them, but it cannot erase them.”
Daily, growing numbers of public and private employers are requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and using the threat of termination to force acceptance of the vaccine. Unfortunately, legal protections in this area are limited. While the Americans with Disabilities Act protects those who can prove they have medical conditions that make receiving a vaccination dangerous, employees must be able to prove they have a sensitivity to vaccines. The requirement established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that employers provide religious accommodations may be invoked by employees who have sincere religious beliefs against receiving vaccinations. But an employer’s duty of accommodation is not absolute, and if it can show that accommodating the worker’s objections to vaccinations will interfere with its operations or workplace safety, the employee may face the choice between keeping her job or violating her religious beliefs.
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. Title VII further defines religion broadly to include not only beliefs, but also religious practices and observances. As a result, the federal employment discrimination law forbids discharging an employee because the employee chooses to engage in certain conduct, or not engage in certain conduct, that is a part of the employee’s religious beliefs and practices, and holds that someone cannot be discriminated against by their employer based on their religion unless the employer cannot reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. Although there have been very few cases that have dealt specifically with Title VII’s ban on employment discrimination based on religion in the context of religious objections to vaccines mandated by the employer, it appears established that if an employee holds sincerely-held religious beliefs in opposition to receiving a vaccination, an employer that has a rule requiring that vaccination must reasonably accommodate the employee’s beliefs. For an employee who objects to an employer’s vaccine requirement, the first step is to give notice to the employer of the religious objection to receiving the vaccine. To this end, The Rutherford Institute has provided a model letter for use in requesting a religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the workplace:
Model Letter: Requesting Religious Accommodation in the Face of COVID-19 Vaccine Workplace Mandate
Dear [Name of Human Resources Officer or other appropriate supervisor]:
On [set forth date], I and other employees of [name of employer] were notified that all employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and provide proof thereof or face termination of our employment. This letter will serve as my formal notice to [name of employer] of the following:
Receiving the COVID-19 vaccination would violate my sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices and/or observances. The following is a description of my religious beliefs that prevent me from receiving the COVID-19 vaccination: [include here a description of your religious beliefs in opposition to receiving the vaccine. If possible, include references to religious texts or statements by leaders of your religion supporting your opposition, although neither are necessary to support a sincerely-held religious belief]. Under established law, including the U.S. Constitution, the definition of ‘religion’ is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances which may be unfamiliar, so an employer must assume that an employee’s statement of objection to a vaccination requirement is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.
Because receiving the COVID-19 vaccination would violate my sincerely-held religious beliefs, I hereby request an accommodation of those beliefs with respect to the recently-imposed vaccination requirement. Under Title VII of the federal civil rights laws, an employer may not discharge or otherwise discriminate against an individual because of the individual’s religion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, this law requires an employer to seek to accommodate an employee whenever there is a conflict between a requirement of the employment and the employee’s religious beliefs, practices or observances. Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977). An accommodation that fully eliminates the conflict with my religious beliefs must be provided unless any and all accommodations would impose an undue hardship. To the extent the law of the [State or Commonwealth where employed] imposes a similar duty to accommodate the religious beliefs, practices or observances of employees, I hereby invoke any and all rights under state law as well.
Having formally notified [name of employer] of the conflict between the COVID-19 vaccination requirement and my religious beliefs, I look forward to receiving in a prompt and timely manner your decision on what accommodation you will provide. Failing that, I reserve my right to pursue legal remedies available to me with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or otherwise in accordance with established law.
[Your name printed]
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.