Balancing Religious Exemption Requests and Company Vaccination Requirements

Companies nationwide continue to struggle with employees who request religious exemptions to company vaccination requirements, whether they are COVID-19 vaccines or others. As a result, some companies are facing lawsuits for terminating employees who refuse to be vaccinated.

EEOC Files Suits Against CHOA

In December, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) after it fired an employee who had requested a religious exemption to its influenza vaccination policy. CHOA granted the employee’s request for a religious exemption in 2017 and 2018. CHOA denied the requests in 2019, citing an increase in flu-related deaths, and fired the employee, despite his admittedly limited interactions with the public or other staff members as a part of his job in maintenance.

According to the EEOC, CHOA’s conduct violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment based on religion and requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs. In its suit, the EEOC claims it would not have been an undue burden for CHOA to continue accommodating the employee’s religious belief as it had in previous years. Instead, CHOA inexplicably changed its stance from prior years and made no effort to accommodate the employee’s religious exemption request. In response, CHOA explained that it had adjusted its vaccine exemption practices in 2019 due to increased flu-related deaths among children.

Religious Exemptions to Vaccine Requirements in Hospital Settings

A common defense of hospitals and other healthcare systems to allegations that they have failed to accommodate religious exemption requests to vaccine requirements, is that allowing them would create an undue hardship. In other words, permitting unvaccinated employees to work in the hospital would create an undue hardship, increasing the risk of spreading the flu to co-workers, patients, and visitors.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic also changed many healthcare systems’ stance on religious vaccine exemptions. Although some healthcare systems had routinely granted religious exemptions for flu vaccines before the pandemic, they took a different view of religious exemption requests concerning COVID-19 vaccines. This policy change stemmed from the difference in the severity of COVID-19 and the public fear of contracting the virus.

Only about one-third of companies require employees to get COVID-19 vaccines, and even fewer require booster shots in 2022 than did in 2021. Employers should ensure that vaccine and exemption policies are in place well ahead of the winter months when illness rates tend to increase. More specifically, they should create a clear process for employees to follow, carefully review whether a religious belief is “sincere,” consider reasonable accommodation and undue hardship, and account for changes in circumstances. Above all, employers need to extend the same flexibility to their employees based on their religious beliefs as they would to employees generally.

HBL has experience in all areas of benefits and employment law, offering a comprehensive solution to all your business benefits and HR/employment needs. We help ensure you are in compliance with the complex requirements of ERISA and the IRS code, as well as those laws that impact you and your employees. Together, we reduce your exposure to potential legal or financial penalties. Learn more by calling 470-571-1007.

The following two tabs change content below.

Hall Benefits Law, LLC

HBL offers employers comprehensive legal guidance on benefits in mergers and acquisitions, Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), executive compensation, health and welfare benefits, healthcare reform, and retirement plans. We counsel a wide spectrum of clients including small, mid-sized, and large companies, 401(k) investment advisors, health insurance brokers, accountants, attorneys, and HR consultants, just to name a few. HBL is passionate about advising clients, and we are dedicated to our mission: to provide comprehensive, personalized, and practical ERISA and benefits legal solutions that exceed client expectations.