COVID-19 Vaccines and Religious and Medical Exemptions

  1. Employment Law
  2. COVID-19 Vaccines and Religious and Medical Exemptions

COVID-19 vaccination mandates by private and public employers and government entities have led to controversy and lawsuits across the nation. As a result, many individuals have sought religious and medical exemptions from these vaccination requirements with limited success. Still, various lawsuits have blocked the implementation of some vaccine mandates, and the ultimate outcomes of these cases remain uncertain.

Oklahoma Attorney General Sues Ascension Healthcare Over Vaccine Mandate

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor has sued Ascension Healthcare, which operates a Roman Catholic hospital, over its denial of a religious exemption to its vaccine mandate. Ascension announced its vaccine mandate back in August 2021 and required that all employees be vaccinated by November 12, 2021, or face termination.

A doctor who works for Ascension asked for an exemption because taking a vaccine developed with ties to aborted fetal cells would violate his sincerely held religious beliefs. Ascension denied the request for an exemption with no explanation. As a result, the Attorney General has filed suit alleging that Ascension violated state law against religious discrimination in denying the doctor’s exemption request. In its complaint, the Attorney General requested that Ascension be ordered to stop terminating employees for failure to get vaccinated and summarily denying exemption requests without explanation.

State Law and Personal and Religious Exemptions to Vaccines

Although Oklahoma has a state law that allows parents to exempt their school-age children from vaccines based on their religious or personal beliefs, there is no similar state or federal law for employees to refuse vaccines based on their personal beliefs.

Title VII, a federal law, requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs, practices, and observances if they are “sincerely held” and the accommodation does not create an undue hardship for the employer.  However, suppose an employer is aware of facts that create an objective basis to question the religious nature of sincerity of a religious belief, practice, or observance. In that case, the employer can request additional supporting information. Generally, the religious belief must be long-standing and not recently adopted by the employee for convenience. A letter or form signed by a pastor or minister, such as one Tulsa pastor has provided for hundreds of people, also isn’t necessarily enough to justify an employer granting a religious exemption.

On the other hand, a personal, political, or philosophical belief is generally insufficient to support any type of exemption from a vaccine mandate. Furthermore, even if a valid religious exemption exists, an employer can impose other requirements on the employee, such as placing them on unpaid leave or requiring them to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, wear a mask at all times, or work remotely.

Medical Exemptions and the COVID-19 Vaccine

Claiming medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements is less common than claiming religious exemptions simply because there have been no widely identified medical reasons to avoid getting vaccinated. As Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s Chief COVID-19 officer, recently reported, “There are very few medical reasons not to get the COVID vaccine.” According to Bratzler, the main reason not to get the vaccine would be an allergic reaction to the first dose.

Despite this statement, at least one Oklahoma medical clinic advertised that they would write a medical exemption note for employees whose employers mandated the vaccine. The clinic later removed the post and explained that they did not support the administration of vaccines approved by the FDA for emergency use only. However, as full FDA approval has now occurred, this argument no longer appears to be an issue.

Governor Seeks Vaccine Exemption for OK National Guard Members

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt recently asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to exempt Oklahoma National Guard Members from federal vaccination mandates. It is unclear what type of exemption the governor is seeking; he stated that requiring the vaccine would violate their personal freedoms. At last count, about 800 National Guard members in the state remained unvaccinated. The governor stated that if those individuals were not allowed to serve in the Guard, the state could be crippled in the event of a weather emergency.

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