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Vaccine Mandates and Religious Accommodations

The vaccine mandate has triggered discussion about religious accommodations. The Biden Administration sought to implement a COVID vaccine mandate for (a) federal contractors, (b) health care workers at facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid funds, and (c) employers with 100 or more employees. The mandates require that all employees must receive two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The mandates do accommodate for religion by allowing for religious exemption from receiving the vaccine. But they are not clear on what, specifically, constitutes a legitimate religious exemption, and thus, companies have varied greatly in how they evaluate such requests. For instance, Boeing asks employees to answer four questions to request a religious accommodation and Tyson Foods has a half-page document asking employees to explain why they think their religious beliefs preclude them from getting vaccinated. At the other extreme, Amtrak has a 31-question form delving into whether or not employees have tattoos or piercings, if they eat foods containing preservatives, and if they take a number of common medications which used fetal cells during research, testing, and development.

Why the question about fetal cells? In the U.S., few of the major faiths specifically prohibit the vaccine; Pope Francis even encouraged Catholics to get the shot. However, many faiths discourage followers from using any drugs whose development or production used fetal cells obtained from abortions. While none of the COVID vaccines require fetal cells for production, a few seem to have been based in research conducted with fetal stem cells.

For this reason, GE asks if research conducted with fetal stem cells is the basis for the employee’s conflict, and if the employee answers in the affirmative, the form lists more than 30 common medications such as Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, or Ex-Lax that “have reportedly used fetal cells in their development and/or testing.” The form asks if the employee has used any of these, and if so, to “explain how that does not conflict with your sincerely held religious beliefs.” GE also makes clear that if employees answer dishonestly, they are subject to termination.

1.     Given that companies have discretion in determining the legitimacy of requests, do you think companies should be extremely broad (granting almost any reasonable request) or extremely narrow (granting few requests) in how they go about granting waivers for religious accommodations? Why?

2.     Assume an employee opposes the use of drugs that were developed and tested with fetal cells, but has used such drugs, not knowing that fetal cells were part of those drugs’ development. Should that preclude an employee from getting a religious accommodation for a drug that they know is based in such research?

Note to Instructors

This can be a very heated discussion as some students may strongly believe in mandates, while others will strongly oppose mandates. The key is not to have students debate this broader issue, but to put themselves in the role of a CHRO who has to respond to a government policy. The discussion should focus on what employees concerns the CHRO needs to consider (safety, privacy, religious freedom, etc.) and how to identify those concerns.

Source: Cutter, C., & Gryta, T. (Oct. 3, 2021). Covid-19 vaccine mandates turn into religious tests at GE, Disney – Some longer than others. Wall Street Journal.

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