Employee Vaccinated Religion Exemption Requests

Employee Vaccinated Religion Exemption Requests

As vaccine mandates for employees become more common, employers are seeing a spike in religious exemption requests. While some employees may have a legitimate medical reason for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, under Title VII employers must accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

What is a “sincerely held” religious belief?

An employee does not have to show they attend a place of worship, are a member of an organized religion, or believe in a deity. Furthermore, they don’t have to provide a note from their priest or spiritual advisor verifying their particular belief. The EEOC notes that employers should focus on the sincerity of the belief as opposed to the motives or reasons for holding that belief in the first place.

With that being said, an employer may question the sincerity of a religious belief if there is an objective basis for doing so. For example, employers should consider:

  • Whether the employee has behaved in a manner markedly inconsistent with the professed belief;
  • Whether the employee is seeking a particularly desirable benefit that is likely being sought for nonspiritual reasons;
  • Whether the timing of the request is questionable; and
  • Whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

Because the EEOC and courts have interpreted the concept of “religious belief” so broadly, employers should exercise caution before concluding a claimed belief is not “sincerely held.”

Can you deny a request based on undue hardship?

Under Title VII, an employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices if doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer’s legitimate business interests. As schools have mostly returned back to in-person instruction, that creates a challenge for educators to carry out their job duties if they refuse the vaccine.

Title VII does not require an employer to prioritize an employee’s religious belief over other employees’ safety in the workplace. As an employer, you may consider denying religious exemptions based on undue hardship if it would:

  • Diminish efficiency in other jobs;
  • Infringe on other employees’ job rights or benefits
  • Impair workplace safety;
  • Cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work; or
  • Conflict with another law.

What does this mean for your district?

Educating children should be the top priority for school districts, not navigating a polarizing and controversial topic such as vaccine mandates. Unfortunately federal, state, and local laws have thrust districts into making decisions on the best ways to keep staff and students safe without infringing on the rights of employees.

As case law on the topic continues to evolve, it is important for your district to establish a centralized procedure to manage religious accommodation requests and the criteria used when granting them. Document the steps you take, including the metrics relied upon in deciding whether a proposed accommodation would create an undue hardship. Contact a member of the Ennis Britton team if you need assistance in making decisions that best fit your District.

Ohio Court Denies Temporary Restraining Order to Halt Return to In-Person Instruction

Earlier this month, a judge in Hamilton County sided with the Board of Education of the Cincinnati Public School District (“Board”) when she denied the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers’ (“Union”) motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that sought to delay the return to in person learning. Cincinnati Fed. of Teachers v. Bd. of Education of the School District of Cincinnati, No. A2100376 (Feb. 1, 2021).

This case was the result of the Board voting to resume in-person instruction beginning February 1, 2021. As a result, the Union filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on the basis that the Board’s decision to resume in-person instruction violated provisions of their collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). In particular one of the provisions of the CBA provides that the Board and the Union will cooperate with one another in making reasonable provisions for the health and safety of its teachers. Additionally, the CBA provides that if a teacher believes that they are being required to work under unsafe or unhealthy conditions beyond the normal hazards of the job, then they have a right to file a grievance. In return, the Board argued that the court should dismiss the case because it lacked jurisdiction and because the Board had the express authority to make decisions regarding in-person instruction.

In reaching its decision, the court looked to § 4 of the Norris-Laguardia Act, 29 U.S.C. § 104, which generally prevents courts from granting injunctive relief involving labor disputes. However, an exception to this general rule applies if the controversy involves a labor dispute, an evidentiary hearing is held, the underlying dispute is subject to the arbitration procedure of the collective bargaining agreement, and the basis for injunctive relief are satisfied.

In evaluating the union’s claim, the court relied on previous Supreme Court precedent which held that a union’s claim that a board failed to provide them with notice and opportunity to discuss the closure of a facility fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State Employment Relations Board (“SERB”). State ex rel. Wilkinson v. Reed, 99 Ohio St.3d 106 (2003). The court in this particular case analogized the union’s failure to cooperate claim to the claim in Reed. Thus, the court concluded that SERB had exclusive jurisdiction to the claim and it therefore was not subject to the arbitration process. Because they were not subject to the arbitration process, the union’s claim did not meet the exception to the general rule that prevents courts from granting injunctive relief in a labor dispute.

The teachers in this case also filed a grievance due to their belief that they were being required to work under conditions which were unsafe or unhealthy. Though the arbitration process with respect to this grievance was proceeding, the union asked the court to issue a status quo injunction while the grievance was being resolved. In evaluating this claim, the court looked to a particular section of the CBA which stated that the Board is invested with the governmental authority and control of Cincinnati Public Schools. The provision further stated that the Board’s authority includes the authority to make rules, regulations and policies that are necessary for the government of schools, the employees, and their students.

This court further noted that the Ohio legislature has vested superintendents and boards of education with almost unlimited reasonable authority to manage and control the schools within their districts. Courts will not interfere with grant of discretionary power, so long as it is exercised in good faith and is not a clear abuse of discretion. Here, the court determined that the return to in-person instruction clearly fell within the authority granted to the Board. Thus, the court concluded that the claims brought by the Union were not arbitrable and the court could not issue an injunction.

What this means for your district?

Ohio superintendents and boards of education have the ultimate decision-making authority in determining whether their schools return to in-person instruction. Courts recognize that Ohio has granted superintendents and boards of education with almost unlimited authority to manage and govern the schools within their districts. So long as boards and superintendents exercise this power reasonably and in good faith without violating the laws of the state of Ohio, courts will seldom interfere.