Employers need to consider a religious exemption if an employee is claiming one as a reason not to get the vaccine. The question is how to approach this so that the employer follows the law and the interests of both the employer and employee are considered. Let’s start with the basics: An employer must accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief if the accommodation is not an undue hardship.
First, what is a sincerely held religious belief? Most lawyers advising employers will tell them not to argue this with an employee because the definition of religious is broad, and it is difficult to argue that something is not sincerely held. There are fact patterns giving rise to contesting this belief. If you have an employee who asked not to get the vaccine due to secular reasons and is now asking due to a religious objection, you may have reason to doubt a sincerely held belief. Still, moving on to the next part of the analysis may mean that this is not an issue to be concerned about.
Second, what is undue hardship? If there is an undue hardship, the employer does not need to accommodate the employee’s initial request. (Be careful! You may need to determine if there is another reasonable accommodation. More on that below.) It is quite clear that compromising the safety of others is an undue hardship. If you have employees who must work in close quarters, this may be reason alone for denying the religious exemption.
Third, is there a reasonable accommodation that would not be an undue hardship? While the employee may ask to be free to go in the workplace unvaccinated for religious reasons, and while that may put the safety of others at risk, there may be other solutions to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs. Employees who were effectively working in a remote location may be able to continue doing this. In fact, the employer arguing that an employee must be in the workplace may be on the losing side of the argument in court.