Saint-Pierre: Employers grappling with religious exemptions to COVID vaccine
On March 3, Governor Eric Holcomb signed into law the controversial House Registration Act 1001, now Public Law No. 1-2022. However, the version of the bill signed by Holcomb lacked one of its most discussed provisions.
Previous versions of HEA 1001 provided that any worker could receive a religious exemption to a vaccination mandate without employers inquiring about the validity of employee claims. Had this version of the bill passed the General Assembly and signed by Holcomb, Indiana employers would have clear marching orders when it comes to religious exemptions from vaccination mandates. But that provision was hotly contested and ultimately removed from the version of the bill that now has the force of law in Indiana. So the question remains: what should Indiana employers do when they receive a request for a religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against religious discrimination, including unequal treatment and harassment based on religion. Title VII also requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincere religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. But how does an employer determine what accommodation may be reasonable? When are religious beliefs considered sincere? And what could constitute undue hardship?
To begin with, religious beliefs protected by Title VII include beliefs of traditional and organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as beliefs that are not common or related to a formal sect or religious group. Even the beliefs of atheists or people commonly considered non-religious or anti-religious can constitute religious beliefs protected by Title VII. The practical distinction is between protected religious beliefs and unprotected personal beliefs of a social, political, economic, scientific or other nature.
In most cases, employers will presume a religious belief to be sincere if held by an employee, but the line between sincere religious beliefs and political, social, scientific or personal convictions is particularly blurred in the context of vaccinations. against COVID-19. Therefore, an employer may have reason to ask the requesting employee for more information to understand or assess the sincerity of the religious belief underlying the employee’s request for exemption. The employer should only request additional information if they need clarification on how the employee’s religious beliefs conflict with the vaccination mandate or if they have an objective reason to doubt the credibility of the employee’s request. For example, if the employee applied for the same accommodation for purely personal reasons before submitting a request for religious exemption, the employer may have reason to question the credibility of the religious belief held by the employee. ’employee. Another situation in which an employer may want to request additional information is if an employee requests a religious exemption but bases their request on political or scientific reasoning.
According to Title VII, if the employer has no objective reason to doubt the sincerity of the claimed religious belief or if the employee provides additional information clarifying any initial reason for doubt, then the employer must reasonably accommodate religious belief, unless doing so would impose undue hardship on the employer.
In the context of religious accommodation, undue hardship means more than a minimal burden and can be determined based on factors such as the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, or the monetary cost of the accommodation per relative to the size and operating costs of the business. employer. Other relevant considerations include whether the available accommodations would result in a lack of necessary personnel or compromise the health or safety of other workers.
No Indiana court has yet determined whether granting a religious exemption to a COVID-19 warrant would impose undue hardship on an employer. However, the federal court sitting in Indianapolis has previously observed that undue hardship is routinely found in cases where the proposed accommodation would cause or increase workplace safety hazards.
Even though having an unvaccinated employee in the workplace would impose undue hardship on an employer and the religious exemption is therefore denied, the employer should consider other accommodations before taking action. against the employee. For example, perhaps the employer’s company allows employees to work from home, which would eliminate concerns about unvaccinated people entering the workplace. In these circumstances, the employer should probably offer the employee a remote work mode as an accommodation.
In the event that the exemption from a vaccination mandate would impose an undue hardship on the employer and no other reasonable alternative is available, or if the employee refuses other alternatives, the employer may reject the request for religious accommodation from the employee and, if necessary, consider actions such as dismissal or placing the employee on unpaid leave.
As the pandemic evolves, issues such as vaccination mandates and religious accommodations will continue to arise. Employers wishing to stay abreast of current COVID-19 developments should seek legal counsel and may wish to seek guidance from federal and state agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Dinsmore & Shohl LLP has assembled a variety of resources in its COVID-19 Business Strategies Center.
Additionally, employers with operations in multiple states should be aware of state and local laws that impact operations outside of Indiana. Although Indiana may not have addressed religious exemptions in the final version of HEA 1001, other states have implemented or are actively considering similar provisions.•
Alyson Saint-Pierre is a partner in the Indianapolis office of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. The opinions expressed are those of the author.