COLORADO, USA — The latest legal battles of the COVID-19 pandemic could be around the corner as more employers mandate vaccines and employees request exemptions.
“It certainly sounds as though there are a lot of people looking to use religious exemptions as a reason to not get the COVID vaccine now that their employers are requiring them to get it," said Christopher Jackson, an Appellate Partner with Holland & Hart.
Jackson said employers need to make decisions that fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which says they must give exemptions for religious beliefs that are sincerely held.
"The law is clear that this exemption only applies for religious beliefs," said Jackson. "It does not apply if you have merely a political or a philosophical objection to the vaccine."
While no major religious organization objects to the COVID-19 vaccine, a CU Boulder professor of women and Jewish studies said that might not matter.
Samira Mehta said the law has recognized the gap between what a church preaches and how a parishioner practices.
"And that gets sticky in something like a vaccine mandate, because we’ve said that it can be individual and it can be quirky and it doesn’t have to appear logical, and it can be new," said Mehta. "All of those things are actually written into how we think about this, and it doesn’t need to be supported by a religious institution, and so it doesn’t even need to be then supported by your religious institution."
Debating whether or not someone's belief is sincere is one way Jackson said exemptions could land in court.
Another could be how an employer treats people with an exemption.
United Airlines recently announced anyone with a religious exemption will be put on temporary unpaid leave, while people with medical exemptions get paid medical leave.
“Even if somebody has a sincerely held religious belief, the employer doesn’t have to do whatever that employee wants," said Jackson. "What they’re required to do is make a reasonable accommodation. And the question about what counts as a reasonable accommodation really does vary depending on the particular case."
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