As cases of the Delta variant of the coronavirus surge, more and more governmental entities and private employers are responding with mandates related to vaccines and masks. As these mandates have proliferated, workers whose religious beliefs and practices stand opposed to such things may feel left in a quandary. Do not give up hope. Although the circumstances are limited, there are settings in which you may be entitled to a religious exemption against certain coronavirus-related mandates. As with any kind of workplace discrimination, you should get in touch with an experienced New Jersey religious discrimination lawyer and discuss your legal options.
Vaccine mandates are making lots of news headlines. Nearby New York City has erected a mandate banning unvaccinated people from indoor restaurants, gyms, and entertainment facilities. Many employers in New Jersey – including several in the healthcare industry along with the state’s court system – are mandating vaccines for their employees.
So, what if you practice a religion whose rules prevent you from getting any of the coronavirus vaccines? Does the threat posed by COVID-19 trump your religious rights?
No. If you give your employer proper notification of your religious objection to getting vaccinated, your employer has to engage you in a back-and-forth interactive process – and do so in good faith – in search of a reasonable accommodation for your religious objection.
Be aware that this does not always force the employer to accommodate your religious objection. If at the end of the dialogue between you and your employer, there are no possible accommodations except those that would impose an unduly harsh burden on the employer, then the employer is not obligated to accommodate you. So, if you work for a hospital system and the interactive process between you and your employer reveals no viable accommodation, then your employer potentially can still demand that you get the shot or face punishment, up to and including losing your job.
There may be ways to disprove the “undue” nature of the burden on your employer, however. For example, say your employer refused to accommodate your religious exemption, but then accommodated a similarly situated worker who submitted a disability-based request for accommodation. This disparate treatment of you versus your colleague with a disability may help you prove there was no undue burden and achieve success in your case.
No Questioning Your Sincerity Without a Proper Basis
The law also lays out some things your employer definitively may not do. Your employer may not question the sincerity of your religious practice in most situations. For example, if you assert that you require a religious accommodation because you are a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and your faith requires eschewing vaccines, your employer usually cannot question the authenticity of that claim.
There is an exception that exists to this, but it is narrow. Your employer, to question the sincerity of the religious accommodation you’ve requested, must have an “objective” factual basis for questioning what you’ve asserted. Even if your employer has that kind of objective basis, they still only can go so far. The law says your employer may only make a limited investigation into the “facts and circumstances” connected to your request and your sincerity in making it. If the employer exceeds these limited bounds, that may violate the law even if the required “objective basis” existed.
The Possibility of Retaliation in Addition to Religious Discrimination
Finally, keep in mind that your employer may not punish you for asserting your rights. That’s called retaliation and it is impermissible. The key thing to know about this is that you do not necessarily have to have a winning case on your discrimination claim to recover damages on your retaliation claim. So, say your employer reassigned you to a less lucrative job because you refused to get vaccinated and then, two weeks after you brought a discrimination claim, fired you. You can win if you have sufficient proof of retaliation, even if the court decides that your discrimination claim was not a viable one.