Covid Vaccine Religious Exemption: Who Qualifies in Massachusetts?

by | Oct 23, 2021 | Discrimination |

Hundreds of Massachusetts employees and contractors are seeking exemptions from the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, including many who’ve said they’re unwilling to roll up their sleeves for a shot “due to a sincerely held religious belief.”

Since Gov. Charlie Baker’s order issued in August, more than 40,000 workers have verified they got vaccinated or asked for a religious or medical exemption by the mandate’s Sunday deadline. An overwhelming majority of employees have gotten protected against the virus, state officials said earlier this week, but the Baker administration has not released details on how many have been vaccinated, how many requested exemptions and how many were denied.

A religious exemption request form asked employees to describe how their religious principles conflict with the mandate. The form, which is posted on the state’s website, does not specifically ask employees what religion or faith they practice, but it notes that further documentation might be necessary.

“The [state] may need to discuss the nature of your religious beliefs, practices, or accommodation with your religious spiritual leader (if applicable) or religious scholars to address your request for an exemption,” the form reads.

Employees’ requests for waivers went through various agencies’ diversity officers. The officers have been conducting interviews with staffers to go over their submitted forms and confirm their “sincerely held religious belief.”

But just having a sincere belief isn’t the only threshold one must pass to acquire a vaccine waiver.

Workers and union leaders say the state and employers are looking to federal guidance on religious discrimination to determine whether granting an “accommodation” — in this case, letting a worker continue to perform their duties unvaccinated — poses an “undue hardship” on a given agency or department.

According to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance, to determine whether an accommodation creates a hardship, employers should consider the type of workplace, nature of duties, identifiable costs of granting an accommodation and the number of employees who will need one.

Employees who deal with the public in person on a day-to-day basis — even if they can demonstrate they hold sincere religious beliefs — could be denied based on the “undue hardship” factor over safety and health concerns during the pandemic, based on EEOC guidance.

“Courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work,” EEOC states.

What’s a sincerely held religious belief to begin with?

Again, government officials and employers across the nation are relying on EEOC guidance around Title VII — the federal law prohibiting religious discrimination in employment — as they weigh local, state and federal vaccine mandates.

EEOC guidance as of January 2021 shows that determining an “individual’s sincerity in espousing a religious observance or practice is ‘largely a matter of individual credibility.’”

Religious rights aren’t forfeited if someone seeking an accommodation “‘is not scrupulous in his observance … although ‘evidence tending to show that an employee acted in a manner inconsistent with his professed religious belief is, of course, relevant to the factfinder’s evaluation of sincerity.’”

Citing Title VII and court precedent, EEOC advises that the “sincerity” of a religious belief is “generally presumed or easily established,” and that neither EEOC nor courts should “be in the business of deciding whether a person holds religious beliefs for the ‘proper’ reasons. We thus restrict our inquiry to whether or not the religious belief system is sincerely held; we do not review the motives or reasons for holding the belief in the first place.”

The guidance continues that if an employer has “an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, observance or practice, the employer would be justified in seeking additional supporting information.”

The governor’s office says it’s reviewing requests for accommodations on an individual and rolling basis.

During a recent news conference in the State House, Baker was adamant that state employees would be treated equally according to the same process, regardless of where they work.

Baker and other state officials also claimed the impacts of the mandate would not lead to significant staffing shortages.

Baker said the administration will reach out to all of those who did not comply before implementing any disciplinary actions, which could include suspensions and terminations.

“We’ll work through them all,” Baker told reporters. “Our goal is to make sure we connect with everybody.”

Baker also called the mandate “perfectly appropriate” given that so many of the state’s employees work directly with the public. And he argued that the fact so many workers had gotten shots — going from a 60%-70% vaccination rate to nearly 90% — showed that most of the “state workforce agreed with us.”

If you have been denied a religious accommodation at your Massachusetts workplace based on your sincerely held religious belief, thus subjected to discrimination contact the Law Offices of Renee Lazar at 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE one hour consultation.

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