COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates: Can Employers Deny Religious Exemptions Because Employees’ Religious Leaders Support Vaccination?

John T. Melcon

In the days since Pope Francis issued a statement urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as “an act of love,” numerous Catholic dioceses in the United States have announced they won’t issue letters supporting religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. What effect do these announcements have on employers facing religious objections to vaccine mandates from Catholic workers?

Not much.

As we explained in a previous post, private employers are generally permitted to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates. In doing so, however, employers must avoid engaging in unlawful discrimination. Under Title VII, employers may be liable for discrimination if they fail to provide reasonable accommodations for employees’ sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Employers might find themselves skeptical of religious accommodation requests, but the EEOC has said employers should presume such requests are based on sincerely-held religious beliefs unless the employer has an “objective basis” for questioning the religious nature or sincerity of the request. Employers cannot reject employees’ accommodation requests merely because the asserted religious beliefs are unique, obscure, or even irrational. More to the point, employees don’t lose their entitlement to an accommodation, even if their personal religious views differ from the official doctrine of their religion or sect. The fact that the Catholic diocese of, say, Las Vegas, “will not issue letters of exemption,” doesn’t mean none of its members are entitled to an exemption based on their own sincerely-held religious beliefs.

To be sure, there might be a few situations in which a religious group’s official position provides an “objective basis” for questioning an employee’s request, such as where the employee merely states their religious affiliation without articulating their personal beliefs. Along these lines, a court recently upheld a public university’s decision to deny a student’s request for a religious exemption from the school’s vaccine mandate in which the student’s request did little more than assert she was Catholic (even after she was invited to provide more information about the religious basis for her request). There, school officials relied on a public statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, saying vaccination was “morally justified.” But ultimately, these instances are the exception, not the norm, and employers are cautioned against summarily denying an exemption request simply because the employee’s church or sect says everyone should get a COVID-19 vaccine. The key is the interactive process required under law. Employers are well advised to prepare for this process with the assistance of counsel before fielding exemption requests.