With the increase in employers requiring employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19, it is important to review legal exemptions and reasonable accommodations defined by the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While employers generally have the right to mandate vaccinations, they must provide reasonable accommodations to employees who cannot be vaccinated because of medical conditions or sincerely held religious beliefs. Navigating religious exemptions can be particularly challenging due to the EEOC’s broad definition of religion and the fact that there is less guidance on religious exemptions than exemptions for disabilities. For more information, we turned to the Reuters article, ” U.S. Employers get Religion with Vaccine Mandates” by Tom Hals.
The article explains that the EEOC’s definition of religion includes moral and ethical beliefs that are not necessarily tied to a specific faith. For example, it cites a 2010 case where Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center employee, Sakile Chenzira, was fired for refusing a flu vaccine because she was a vegan. Chenzira sued the hospital, and the federal judge ruled in her favor because of the sincerity of her beliefs.
Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who require religious exemptions. That said, they are not required to provide accommodations that put undue burdens on workplace safety and efficiency. To illustrate this point, the article cites the case of Horvath v. City of Leander. Brett Horvath worked for the City of Leander Fire Department, which required employees to receive a tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine. Horvath refused to be vaccinated due to his religious beliefs. The fire department attempted to reasonably accommodate his beliefs by requiring him to either wear a mask and submit to testing or switch to a job position that did not require a vaccination. When Horvath refused the accommodations, he was fired. Horvath filed a lawsuit, but his case was dismissed because the fire department fulfilled its role of providing an accommodation that would grant his exemption without burdening workplace safety.
To summarize, when creating and enforcing vaccination policies, employers and employees must work together to ensure the rights of everyone involved. The EEOC protects the rights of employees who cannot be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons. It also recognizes that employers have the right to deny accommodations that result in undue hardship. Balancing these rights will require open dialogue and creative problem solving.
Want to learn more about religious accommodations? See our post here.