With many companies now requiring their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, local business attorney Ed Enoch has received numerous questions from his clients about religious exemptions.
Enoch – attorney with Enoch Tarver, PC in Augusta – recently discussed that topic in a video. “This has become a really hot topic because of vaccine mandates or the potential for vaccine mandates,” says Enoch in the video. “The religious exemption has been around ever since Title VII was passed in the 60s, but it’s really not been on the forefront.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” This law applies to all businesses with more than 15 employees. Enoch explains the legal rights of employees requesting religious exemptions when they haven’t been clearly defined. “What the courts have said is you need to accommodate people who have a sincerely held religious belief,” he states. “It doesn’t have to be part of a major religion.”
Enoch says if a business chooses to implement a vaccine mandate, all religious exemption requests should be handled on an individual basis. Because it’s often difficult to determine an employee’s beliefs, deciding whether or not to grant an exemption has become a major challenge for business owners. “What I’ve been telling clients is avoid a mandate if you can,” he explains. “I really think that as a small business owner, all you’re doing when you have a mandate is creating this problem for yourself.” Enoch states rather than implementing a mandate, businesses can offer employees incentives for receiving the vaccine.
An article from the Society of Human Resource Management addresses the topic of how businesses should handle employee requests for medical or religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. “Employers who require employees to receive the vaccine should know that federal law allows employees to ask to be exempted from the requirement due to medical or religious reasons,” the article states. “Employers also have an obligation to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, unless the accommodation creates an undue hardship.” According to SHRM, business owners are encouraged to request explanations for religious exemption requests, which may also include documentation from religious leaders.
According to a Georgia Public Broadcasting article– Matt Troup, CEO of Conway Regional Health System in Arkansas, has granted 45 religious exemptions to employees who refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Their objections were largely based on the employees’ beliefs that vaccines that used fetal cells in research, testing or production should not be put in their bodies. Before granting the religious exemptions, Troup sent the employees a list of 28 commonly used medicines that also used fetal cells in their research, testing or development — a list that includes Tylenol, Motrin, Tums, Ex-Lax and other medicine cabinet staples. He asked employees to attest to not be using any of those medicines.
Back in Augusta, Enoch adds employers will continue to receive religious exemption requests for other company policies, such as those for dress code, body piercings, and time off religious reasons. “The religious exemption’s still going to be there when the vaccine debate is gone,” he says.