COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates and Religious Exemptions

Many government agencies and employers are now requiring employees, healthcare workers, and other private citizens to provide proof of vaccination for COVID-19 as a requirement for continued employment. Some cities, like New York City, have imposed new mandates that require a vaccine to enter an establishment of indoor dining, entertainment, and fitness, and will fine businesses who do not comply. And some colleges and universities are also requiring vaccination of all students who plan to attend in-person classes.

You may have heard that some employers, schools, etc., will allow for religious exemptions as an alternative to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

So, what exactly is a religious exemption and how does it apply to the COVID-19 vaccine? 

We have listed some frequently asked questions below as well as trusted legal resources and opinions from our allies at Liberty Counsel and Alliance Defending Freedom to help you stay informed and know your legal rights:

 

LEGAL RESOURCES


ADF Summary Guidance for Religious Accommodations and Exemptions from Covid-19 Vaccination Mandates
This resource provides information regarding employment, students, churches, and the US Military. This guidance provided by ADF is provided merely as a courtesy and is not intended to provide legal information or advice to any person or entity. (Downloadable PDF)

Liberty Counsel Memo on COVID Vaccination Mandates (PDF)
The COVID vaccines are in a special category and cannot be treated like FDA licensed vaccines. None of the COVID vaccines are FDA licensed; nor have they received full FDA approval. Rather, their approval is under the special provision noted above as EUA. This means that there is not enough data (which includes duration of testing) for the FDA to render a final approval. More importantly, no one, including private employers, may coerce individuals (by threatening their employment or otherwise) to take an EUA vaccine. Federal law requires full and informed, voluntary consent. (Read more)

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

The information below is provided by ADFLegal.org:

My employer or school requires masks. I have a religious objection. Do I have any recourse?
First, you must ensure that you have a bona fide religious objection. Few, if any, religions have specific teachings against wearing masks. You must be able to articulate a religious belief that the mask requirement violates. Medical, cultural, or political objections do not qualify as a bona fide religious objection. Some plaintiffs have sued based on religious objections to wearing masks in public, but courts have rejected those to date.

Is being forced to get the vaccine unconstitutional? Specifically, aren’t there religious freedom issues?
Courts have ruled for over a century that the government may require mandatory vaccines in certain circumstances. Religious objectors may be entitled to accommodations in some circumstances. For more information on mandatory vaccines in employment and education, see the document entitled “Summary Guidance for Religious Accommodations and Exemptions from COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates.” 

Are there free speech issues with mandatory vaccines?
Not in most circumstances. Private employers and private schools are not subject to the First Amendment. Even in cases where a government employer or public school may require you to disclose your vaccination status, it would not likely be considered compelled speech under the First Amendment.

My school or employer requires a COVID vaccine but offers religious “accommodations” that include wearing masks or periodic COVID testing. I’m afraid of being singled out. What can I do?
In most situations, employers or schools that provide such religious accommodations are legally permitted to do so. However, if you experience actual repeated and severe harassment in the workplace based specifically on your religious beliefs, you may have claims based on workplace harassment. But feeling singled out, without more, is unlikely to violate the law.

I work for an employer that requires vaccination, but I have religious objections. What are my options?
You must first determine if your objection is based on a sincerely held religious belief against taking any of the available vaccines (since they are different), or whether your objections are based on other medical, health, cultural, or political, but not religious, concerns. Many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.

Private employers. Private employers may generally impose work-related job requirements on their employees so long as the requirements do not violate the law. However, if an employer institutes a policy requiring its employees to take a vaccine, and to take the vaccine would violate your sincerely held religious beliefs, the employer may be required to grant you a reasonable accommodation if it can do so without incurring an undue hardship. A reasonable accommodation may include a mask or social distance requirement, temperature checks, COVID-testing, reassignment, or other measures.

Government employers. Government employers may also have to grant reasonable accommodations to their employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with the employer’s policies or directives, just as private employers do. In addition, unlike private employees, government employers must also respect the constitutional rights of their employees. So a government employee may also have constitutional rights to avoid the government employer’s vaccine mandates. For example, if a government employer offers any exemptions to a mandatory vaccine requirement, then the Constitution may require that it also offer an exemption for religious reasons.

I or my child attend(s) a school that requires COVID vaccination to attend. I have a religious objection to all of the available COVID vaccines. Do I have any options?
You must first determine if your objection is based on a sincerely held religious belief against taking any of the available vaccines (since they are different), or whether your objections are based on other medical, health, cultural, or political, but not religious, concerns. Many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.

If you do have 1) a sincerely held religious objection to taking all vaccines, or 2) a specific, sincerely held belief rooted in your faith that taking these particular COVID-19 vaccines would violate your sincerely held religious beliefs in a way that you can articulate, then you may be entitled to request an accommodation, depending on the situation. You should also first check to see if any other objections to the vaccines are permitted, such as medical exemptions, or pregnancy. If you receive an accommodation, you should be willing to accept other requirements such as wearing a mask, temperature checks, and/or regular COVID-testing.

I believe my objections to the COVID-19 vaccine are likely non-religious objections. Do I have any recourse against a vaccine mandate by my employer or my or my child’s school?
It depends on your situation. Employers and schools sometimes offer accommodations and exemptions for reasons other than sincerely held religious beliefs, most commonly health accommodations or exemptions for employees and students who have medical conditions that put them at particular risk if they are required to receive a vaccine. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also has a medical accommodation provision similar to Title VII’s religious accommodation in employment provision.

If you believe you have a bona fide religious objection to a COVID-19 vaccine required by your employer or your child’s school, you can submit a request for legal assistance to ADF or call 800-835-5233.

You can also request legal assistance from Liberty Counsel.

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