KingSpry | Religious Exemption to School Mandates

Does Religious Exemption Hold Same Legal Weight As Medical Exemption Against School Mandates?

Posted on August 27th, 2021
by John E. Freund, III

With the return of in person students and the resurgence of COVID-19 Delta variant, masking mandates for many schools is the new reality. A recent decision in the 6th Circuit held that mask mandates do not violate Free Exercise or Equal Protection clauses. (Resurrection Sch. et al. v. Hertel et al.)

Whenever a mandate is present, exceptions are an inevitable concomitant. We are accustomed to two exceptions that seem to roll off the tongue at the mention of mandates – medical and religious. These two exceptions, however, do not apply with equal force. Regarding medical exceptions, employers cannot effectively challenge medical opinion and assertively limit or complicate investigation of medical excuse. For religious exceptions, the standard is a sincerely held tenant of recognized religious belief or tradition. Too often religious belief is merely a pretext for a personal belief. The dilemma is how do you ferret out the charlatans from the true believers, or should you even try?

What Is Required for Religious Exemption

Most of the law regarding religious exemptions pertains to employees under Title VII, but it can provide a guide for dealing with students’ requests for exemptions as well. There are two exemptions that routinely apply to mandates for both employees and students. One is for a medical exemption and the other is for a religious exemption. While this guidance is more for an employer-employee relationship, it is useful for schools to understand the meaning and standard behind what qualifies as a religious exemption.

If an employee tells their employer they have a religious exemption, what options does the school have, and what rules must they comply with? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has provided guidance on whether an employ may require all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and the process an employer and employee need to take when faced with a religious exemption. The EEOC has repeatedly stated that, subject to certain limitations, an employer may require their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

However, under Title VII, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation if an employee alleges a sincerely-held (or bona fide) religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from getting the vaccine, unless the accommodation would pose as an “undue hardship.” Title VII defines “religion” to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief,” not just practices that are mandated or prohibited by a tenant of the individual’s faith.  Although not expressly applicable to a mask or vaccine mandate, the analysis is analogous.

In Africa v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Third Circuit explains there are two threshold requirements which must first be met before alleged religious beliefs are awarded protection under an exemption. A court must first decide whether the beliefs alleged are 1) sincerely held, and 2) religious in nature. If one of these two requirements are not met, then a court does not need to analyze whether a legitimate and reasonable exercised state interest outweighs the individual’s claim. The court further explains the inquiry into the sincerity of a religious belief “has nothing to do with making determinations about the truth of a religious belief.”

This required showing of sincerity on the part of the individual looking for judicial protection of their religious beliefs establishes a standard, that without, would create a limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted legal obligations.

What Constitutes a “Sincerely Held Belief” 

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health regulations identify three potential exceptions to long-standing vaccine requirements: medical, religious, and strong moral or ethical conviction similar to religious belief. While there may be a few people in religious groups who join forces and refuse vaccination, it is usually a personal-belief exemption they are claiming, and not a sincerely held religious belief. There are only a few religions with an absolute objection to vaccines, such as churches that rely on faith healing or Christian Scientists who believe in healing through prayer and that vaccines are not necessary. 

This does not mean that an individual’s asserted religious belief is strictly tied to traditional religious concepts, but the belief must, at a bare minimum, reflect more than mere personal preference.  While the EEOC recommends an employer should ordinarily assume an employee’s request for a religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, an employer may request additional supporting information. Schools certainly have the same right to vet a student’s claim for exemption.

Bottom Line for Schools

Schools may make a limited inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the individual’s religious exemption claim, and whether an school has a reasonable basis for seeking to verify this type of claim will depend on the specific facts of a particular instance If you decide to require the COVID-19 vaccine, it is important to prepare a policy framework and encourage open communication with the members of your school community.

Questions exploring the sincerity and consistency of the student’s belief underlying the claim for exemption should be fair game. However, legal counsel should be consulted on the precise questions to be asked and the limits of any inquiry.

School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.