Religious Exemptions for Vaccine Mandates Present Challenges for Employers

Both the Dallas County and Tarrant County Health Directors Tuesday offered encouraging news to their County Commissioners along with caution about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
NBC 5 News

Employers across the nation are facing a growing dilemma: what to do with employees who file for a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some companies like United Airlines began letting go unvaccinated workers while other places, like the city of San Jose, are granting those exemptions.

San Jose says 93% of its workforce is fully vaccinated, but there are several hundred people who have been granted a religious exemption. The process to get those exemptions is apparently not that complicated.

"There’s an application process that is vetted by our city attorney’s office," Mayor Sam Liccardo said. "Many exemptions are granted. Some are not."

Liccardo said there are constitutional provisions they need to abide by before denying a religious exemption. The city said right now all employees have to do is declare that they have a genuine religious objection or a religious tenant that prevents them from getting the vaccine.

"Fair to say that this is an issue where employers are in a pretty tough spot," Liccardo said.

Critics have said the standard is vague at best.

"I'd be ready to fight them, say you’re going to have to give me hard proof," attorney Richard Alexander said.

After decades of going after large companies, Alexander said he would back those companies who ask employees to show more proof of a religious objection, for example, a letter from a priest or rabbi or citing a biblical reference.

"Just say it: 'You want to work here, you’re going to have to have the shot. If you don’t have the shot, you can’t work here,'" Alexander said.

The city said employees who are given an exemption will still have to test twice a week.

Rev. Jon Pedigo of Catholic Charities said virtually no religion recognizes any legitimate exemption to the vaccine, so he said don't expect him or any other Catholic clergy member to sign an exemption form to avoid the vaccine.

"There’s nothing within the theological world of Catholicism that prevents somebody from getting that," he said.

Many of those seeking the exemption said the process can be daunting. Some even describe it as insulting, saying employers are effectively asking them to prove their faith.

Editors note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted city employees with a religious exemption would be required to test up to three times a week and would be subject to a 40-hour unpaid suspension. The city has clarified that employees with a religious exemption would be required to test twice a week, and would not be subject to a 40-hour unpaid suspension. We apologize for the error.

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