Providence Alaska Medical Center, a Catholic hospital and one of the largest private employers in Alaska, is investigating the sincerity of employees’ spiritual beliefs before granting religious exemptions to COVID shots.
Last month, the Catholic hospital announced that employees have until Sept. 30 to be fully vaccinated. The Watchman, however, obtained a form which Providence is issuing to employees who request religious exemptions or accommodations.
The form states that Providence will grant religious exemptions “when an individual’s sincerely held religious beliefs preclude vaccination.” According to Providence, acceptable religious beliefs “include sincere and meaningful affiliations with a religious group or moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong, which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”
The Civil Rights Act requires employers to ‘provide a reasonable accommodation’ for religious exemptions unless it poses an ‘undue hardship.’
In order to ensure one has sufficiently “sincere” objections, Providence states that it reserves the “right to request additional information reasonably needed to evaluate your exemption request.” This includes asking employees to state their religious beliefs or practices and explain how their faith “conflicts with COVID-19 vaccine requirement.”
The hospital also asks employees to identify someone who can “verify your sincerely held religious or moral/ethical belief practice.” This would include a pastor, spiritual leader or friend. Additionally, the hospital wants to know how long an employee has held to their beliefs.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to “provide a reasonable accommodation” for a religious exemption unless it would pose an “undue hardship.”
According to the EEOC, considerations relevant to “undue hardship” can include, among other things, “the proportion of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with non-employees, whose vaccination status could be unknown or who may be ineligible for the vaccine.”
Alliance Defending Freedom says employers should not demand employees support their religious accommodation request with statements from their church or clergy.
The EEOC cautions employers that if an employee cannot be accommodated “employers should determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities before taking adverse employment action against an unvaccinated employee.”
“Employers also may receive religious accommodation requests from individuals who wish to wait until an alternative version or specific brand of COVID-19 vaccine is available to the employee,” the EEOC website explains, adding that the definition of religion is “broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar.”
“Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance,” EEOC instructs, and in general an employer should “thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment.”
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The EEOC states that an employer is only justified in questioning the sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs if they are “aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance.”
The Providence questionnaire, however, assumes a skeptical view from the outset to any employee’s religious objections to COVID shots, and puts the burden of proof on the employee to defend the legitimacy of their deeply held convictions.
According to Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the largest legal organizations committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, marriage and family, parental rights, and the sanctity of life, it is “inappropriate for an employer to demand that an employee support their religious accommodation request with statements from the employee’s church or clergy.”