October 06, 2021 | Blog, COVID-19, Personnel, Students

Tempted by Exemptions

by Katie Pestcoe, Law Clerk

As mask and vaccine mandates gain more traction throughout the nation as a means of preventing and hopefully eradicating COVID-19, many people who vehemently oppose these measures are attempting to use religious exemptions as a last-ditch effort to avoid compliance. Religious exemptions to vaccinations have been asserted in the past, but perhaps never in such a vocal and widespread manner.

School districts are at the center of this constitutional and legal debate, with both employees and students claiming religious arguments in an attempt to avoid masking up or receiving the COVID vaccine. Arguments have been made with regard to mask policies and vaccine requirements and stem from a handful of different legal sources, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Many employers and school officials have called into question the legitimacy of these religious exemptions and the arguments presented in favor of them.

The process for analyzing these claims depends on who is making the claim and what laws they are using to support it. The Free Exercise Clause protects citizens’ right to practice religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of public morals or a compelling government interest. This argument is used by many individuals attempting to say that in order to freely practice their religion, they cannot comply with these government mandates. However, there is a compelling government interest of public health that likely outweighs the protections afforded by the Free Exercise Clause.

Another argument widely used to combat these mandates revolve around Titles II and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1984. Title II protects against religious discrimination in public accommodations, but also has no applicability in the face of neutrally applicable laws. State and District mask mandates are neutral and generally applicable to all individuals, regardless of religious affiliation. Title VII of the Act requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.

Determining the “sincerity” of these religious beliefs is proving to be the most difficult aspect of this analysis. These beliefs do not have to be rational but cannot be socially or politically motivated. Beliefs also do not need to be recognized by religious leaders in order to be considered legitimate and sincerely held. Rather, in the era of COVID-19 mandates the EEOC has stated that people must have a legitimate explanation as to the sincerity of their beliefs for a religious accommodation to be considered.

This area of religious exemptions is largely unclear at the present time. The District’s best option upon receiving a request for a religious exemption or accommodation should be to contact legal counsel, but if that is not an option, the following questions and answers should provide some guidance as to how to proceed, and what is allowed versus what is not.

 Q & A on Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

Q:        What constitutes a sincerely held religious belief?

A:        A sincerely held religious belief under Federal law is considered to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Moreover, the term “religion” includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief. This means that so long as an individual sincerely holds this belief in his or her own life, it need not be a belief recognized or supported by religious authorities.

Q:        Can and should the District require documentation of the request?

A:        Requesting documentation of the existence of this sincerely held religious belief is likely to be futile due to the fact that religious leaders and authorities need not be in support of this specific belief, so long as the individual actually holds this belief to be sincere in his or her own life. Getting an “excuse” written by a pastor, rabbi, or the pope might bolster a religious exemption claim, however the request can still be considered a sincerely held belief even without outside religious support.

Q:        To what extent can a district make the person requesting an accommodation prove that they are entitled to an exemption?

A:        Because this is such a gray area, there is no guidance as to exactly what districts and other employers are allowed to ask or are prohibited from asking. The EEOC has stated that people MUST have a legitimate explanation as to the sincerity of their religious beliefs for a religious accommodation to be considered. To that end, districts are well within their rights to ask for the individual requesting the exemption or accommodation to provide them an explanation as to why this is a sincerely held belief. A district can assess several factors in considering the sincerity of a religious belief. These factors include whether:

  • the employee or student’s behavior is inconsistent with the professed belief;
  • the accommodation constitutes a desirable benefit likely to be sought for secular reasons;
  • the timing of the request renders it suspect; and/or
  • the District has an objective reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

Q:        If the belief is sincerely held, must the District grant the requested exemption?

A:        According to the Supreme Court, under Title VII, an employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices if doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s legitimate business interests. An undue hardship exists as a matter of law where an employer is required to bear more than a de minimis cost. The EEOC has explained that the factors for employers to consider in denying a religious accommodation include whether:

  • the accommodation is too costly;
  • it would decrease workplace efficiency;
  • the accommodation infringes on the rights of other employees;
  • the accommodation requires other employees to do more than their share of hazardous or burdensome work;
  • the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law or regulation; and/or,
  • it compromises workplace safety.

Q:        What are the risks of denying a religious exemption request?

A:        The largest risk in denying a religious exemption request would be facing a discrimination claim or a lawsuit and the potential costs and fees that come with litigation. However, courts generally apply a burden shifting analysis when considering discrimination claims.  This means that a district with a solid argument that the belief is not sincere or the accommodation presents an undue hardship would have the potential to prevail.

There is so much gray area in this particular area of law. Districts should take precautions to ensure they maintain safety on school grounds, but also do not infringe on the rights of students and employees. It is a difficult balancing act, which is only exacerbated by both the novelty and intensity of the debate. The good news is that as more religious exemptions are requested and challenged; it is likely that clearer legal guidance will develop.

If you have any questions or concerns about religious exemptions in relation to COVID-19 mandates, please do not hesitate to call any of the attorneys at Leasor Crass, PC.

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