What do you do, as a business owner or HR professional, when you have an employee claiming that their sincerely held belief prevents them from receiving the Covid-19 vaccination? It's not easy, but here is what you need to do.

Have a standardized form.

This is where you want documentation and consistency. The Safer Federal Workforce website (a website for federal contractors) gives a sample form for an employee to request a religious exemption. It has seven questions:

  1. Please describe the nature of your objection to the Covid-19 vaccination requirement.
  2. Would complying with the Covid-19 vaccination requirement substantially burden your religious exercise? If so, please explain how.
  3. How long have you held the religious belief underlying your objection?
  4. Please describe whether, as an adult, you have received any vaccines against any other diseases (such as a flu vaccine or a tetanus vaccine) and, if so, what vaccine you most recently received and when, to the best of your recollection.
  5. If you do not have a religious objection to the use of all vaccines, please explain why your objection is limited to particular vaccines.
  6. If there are any other medicines or products that you do not use because of the religious belief underlying your objection, please identify them.
  7. Please provide any additional information that you think may be helpful in reviewing your request.

By asking everyone the same questions and documenting their answers, you reduce the chance of someone approving or denying the request on a whim.

Anonymize the requests.

We are more likely to believe people we like or provide exemptions to the top performer because we don't want to lose our star salesperson. But, this requires you to step back. Ask employees to submit their forms and then review them without names. Ideally, have your outside employment counsel review the forms. Remember, it's always cheaper to pay an attorney for advice up front than to pay an attorney to fight a lawsuit for out.

Warn your employees that this is serious.

People who have sincere religious objections to the Covid-19 vaccinations (or any vaccination) have the right to an accommodation as long as it doesn't cause an "undue burden" on the employer. But, people who don't want to be vaccinated don't have a right to try to play the system.

Employment attorney and partner with Shipman & Goodwin Dan Schwartz says, "Employers should remind employees that submitting false information on any exemption request is grounds for discipline, just as they would for an FMLA request. Requests have consequences and are not a free chance for employees to make something up."

Remember, though, don't take any adverse action toward an employee without the approval of your employment attorney.

Remember, it's not about church membership.

Pope Francis made a statement in favor of the Covid vaccine, but Catholic football coach Nick Rolovich said his objection to the Covid vaccine was because of his Catholic faith. That doesn't mean you could automatically reject Rolovich's request (although, ultimately, Washington State University did terminate Rolovich). 

An employee doesn't need to bring in a note from their religious leader. They can belong to a church that preaches one thing but still claim a sincere religious belief in another. Or they don't need to belong to organized religion at all. It's about the sincerity of their belief, not whether someone else believes the same way they do.

Finding a solution isn't always easy.

You may decide that an employee's request for a religious exemption is sincere. But then what? Naturally, if the employee can work from home, they should do that. But, otherwise, then what? 

Well, it depends on your business and the working situation. Each case is different, so sit down with your employee and try to find a reasonable solution. Remember, you don't have to implement a solution that causes an undue hardship on your business.

Overall, it's essential to take every religious exemption request seriously. Have your employees fill out the form, have a qualified person review the anonymized forms, and act compassionately.