“Lunch and Learn” Discusses Religious Exemptions from Vaccine Mandates

By Frank Johnson
Deputy City Attorney, City of Gaithersburg

At the Section’s latest “lunch and learn” session on February 25, Michael Foreman, Law Professor and Director of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic at Pennsylvania State University School of Law, spoke about religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. He pointed out that, while vaccinations can be required, an employer cannot, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, discriminate based on religion. 

A “sincerely held religious belief” is required for an exemption. Prof. Foreman advised that general anti-vaccination beliefs unrelated to religious convictions are not considered religious beliefs, but noted that the EEOC does not recommend challenging the individual’s assertion of a religious belief. If an employee raises a valid objection based on religion to a mandate, the employer must make a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would cause the employer “undue hardship.” 

Professor Foreman noted the “undue hardship” standard has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, in TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977), to require “no more than a de minimis cost.”  He noted this question is currently under review by the Supreme Court, but said past cases showed that reassignment or requiring extra protective equipment can be required. 

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