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WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans have already rolled up their sleeves to get the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine. And globally, the number of people getting the shot has been numbered in the billions.
But across the country, there are many who are objecting to the vaccine for religious reasons, and who are seeking a religious exemption. That includes in D.C., where 475 city employees requested a religious exemption, including 419 firefighters.
Will Jones, who defines himself as a ‘follower of the teachings and example of Yeshua,’ is one of those people. He said his objections are due to the fact that vaccine rates lag behind in developing countries, compared to the United States.
Jones pointed to the African continent, which has a vaccine rate in the single digits according to the W.H.O., compared to D.C., which has a vaccine rate that is well over 70%.
“That is an incredible disparity in terms of life-saving health interventions,” he said. “Because we do know, especially if you’re at a high risk, that this is something that can save lives.”
To Verify the ins and outs of this complicated issue, we spoke with a trio of legal experts, to break down the process for how these requests are accepted or denied.
What are the steps toward getting a religious exemption?
Lawrence O. Gostin, Professor at Georgetown Law School
Peter H. Meyers, Professor of Law Emeritus at GWU Law School
Matt Mihalich, Attorney at Tully Rinckey Law Firm
The process will look slightly different, depending on your employer, and specific circumstances. Generally speaking, a request for a religious exemption may be considered, so long as it is ‘sincere’ although an employer is allowed to ask questions to try and gauge one’s seriousness.
If an employer accepts the exemption, an employee may be given ‘reasonable accommodations’ if possible. The employer may deny the request if it is deemed insincere, in which case the employee can challenge the decision in court.
Step One: Requesting An Exemption
If one believes that the vaccine would violate their religious beliefs, they are able to request an exemption from their employer.
Our experts said that the primary question will boil down to whether a request for a religious exemption is ‘sincere.’
“Certainly if the person is genuinely sincere,” said Gostin. “In that, it would harm their – you know – core religious values to get a vaccine, I can respect and admire that. But that’s going to be a very, very narrow exemption.”
Step Two: Gaging Sincerity
Uncovering whether a belief is sincerely held can prove to be difficult for an employer. That’s why Mihalich said employers are allowed to investigate any request.
“Your employer is allowed to ask you questions about whether or not you sincerely believe it,” he said. “And try to get more information about it.”
Meyers said that employers will be able to look at whether one’s beliefs appear to be consistent with past behavior.
“Somebody cannot just wake up tomorrow morning and say – ‘oh, my personal religion is against the COVID vaccination,'” he said.
Mihalich said that some precedent, relating to religious exemptions, was set during the days of the active military draft when many people were using their religious objections to get out of service.
“During those inquiries,” he said. “During those cases, the prevailing standard was that any facts which cast doubt on the veracity of that claim of religious sincerity is relevant.”
Gostin points out that this investigative period will be longer or shorter, depending on the employer.
“Some will be very generous,” he said. “That will allow an exemption if you just ask for one. And others will be much more rigorous, and they will scrutinize whether or not this is a genuine exemption.”
Step Three: A Decision Is Made
Eventually, the employer will have to make a decision. If the religious exemption is accepted, they will have to provide ‘reasonable accommodations’ if possible to the employee. That reasonable accommodation could include regular testing or working from home if possible.
“If you’re able to show that your belief is sincere,” he said. “then it’s a conversation about how to accommodate that religious belief.”
If the employer decides that the belief is insincere, they can choose to reject the religious exemption request. If the employee continues to refuse the shot, this could lead to termination.
Step Four: Litigation
Our experts said that the next step could be litigation if an employer decides to terminate the employee that refused the vaccine.
“As in so many things in America, it winds up in the courts,” Meyers said. “So I would expect, just like many other issues, that this question will be decided by judges ultimately.”
Mihalich said that an employee will have an especially good argument in court if the employer does not engage in a process, to try and gauge sincerity.
“If they don’t do that,” he said. “If they don’t engage in that interactive process. If they summarily terminate you, as soon as you say the word religion or when you bring that up, then I think that’s absolutely time you need to be speaking with an attorney and taking that to court.”
Gostin said that the final word will likely be from the judge that hears the case.
“At the end of the road, you can always go to court,” he said. “But the court would give strong deference to the business’ decision, so long as it wasn’t entirely unreasonable.”