December 7, 2021

What laws say about religious exemptions and how Indiana lawmakers could change them


Article origination Indiana Public Media
A cross carried at a protest on the lawn of the Indiana Statehouse in opposition to vaccination requirements from government. (Justin Hicks/IPB News)

A cross carried at a protest on the lawn of the Indiana Statehouse in opposition to vaccination requirements from government. (Justin Hicks/IPB News)

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Companies across Indiana have voluntarily required worker vaccinations for months. And for some of their employees, religious exemptions look like the easiest way to avoid the mandate – even if it's not necessarily a tenet of their religion.

A complicated mix of federal rules and newly proposed state laws leave many companies wondering how to keep workers safe while honoring religious rights.

Micah Beckwith is a pastor in Noblesville and outspoken in conservative political circles. Earlier this year, he started getting messages from people looking for a way out of the COVID-19 vaccine when their work started voluntarily requiring it. 

"I'll spend an hour on the phone, every other day it seems like, with people who are just bawling, they're crying, they're just saying, 'I don't know what to do. I don't know where to turn,'" he said. "'And then I heard about you.'"

Beckwith said many of them can’t necessarily articulate their resistance to vaccination in terms of faith. But they do deeply believe the vaccine isn’t right for them. 

“These people aren't crazy," he said. "These people are great people, they just tend to say, Hey, I just have a little bit of hesitancy here and I don't think it's right that I'm being forced to take this.”

So Beckwith helps them frame those beliefs as faith. He estimates he’s helped thousands of people craft letters requesting religious vaccine exemptions, supported by scripture from the Bible.

But how’s an employer supposed to handle those requests, even if it suspects a worker's religious belief isn't sincere? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says, when it comes to vaccines and religion, a company’s default policy should be to grant them. But it can ask workers some questions.

Afterward, if they think an employee’s religious belief isn’t sincere, it could refuse accommodation. But that can be hard to prove and risky: if not handled the right way, the EEOC could impose stiff penalties

Rigel Oliveri, law professor at the University of Missouri, said there are still plenty of other reasons employers could refuse religious exemptions for vaccines.

"First of all, the accommodation must be reasonable," she said. "And it must not create undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business.

Undue hardship is typically measured in terms of cost, so if a company can prove an exemption significantly affects their bottom line, it can get thrown out. 

Another reason? The EEOC says religious accommodations can be refused if they get in the way of workplace safety.

"So I can clearly see many employers now saying, 'you know, I can't grant this exemption because it will cost too much if we have to be quarantining, if it causes us to have to close down or it causes people to have to wear PPE,'" Oliveri said. "The potential costs to businesses are very likely to justify any refusal to grant an exemption."

READ MORE: House GOP’s top 2022 priority is stopping COVID-19 vaccine mandates


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Now, on top of those rules, add a new layer of complexity for employers. Indiana Republican lawmakers have signaled they want to have state laws on employers and vaccines. House Bill 1001 would require all employers to grant religious exemptions, making determinations of sincerity or adverse business impacts nearly impossible. 

Christopher Schrader, government affairs director for the Indiana Society of Human Resource Management, said the way that draft is worded currently could remove an employer’s ability to refuse exemptions, or even ask questions. He's not sure that's intentional, but simply a blind spot in lawmakers understanding of labor laws.

"This is them trying to navigate around a lot of stuff," he said. "I'm not willing to step out and say they took it out. I mean, this is a working paper. This is the roughest of rough drafts. At best it’s a statement of intent.” 

Schrader said there’s a lot to juggle between proposed action from state lawmakers in January and several federal workplace vaccination rules hanging in legal limbo. He’s most worried for companies that don’t have strong human resources teams or even none at all. 

"It does take more than a little experience and practice knowledge to successfully navigate what is, on one side, a highly politicized issue, which is also a medical issue, which is now going to get dragged into the religious realm," he said. "Skilled HR will handle it and the other folks will step on landmines." 

As state and federal rules around vaccines and exemptions seemed poised to get more complicated, his best advice to human resource workers trying to make sense of it all is simple: stay tuned and stay prepared.

Contact reporter Justin at jhicks@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @Hicks_JustinM.

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