Religious Exemption from COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate Would Cause Undue Hardship

By Robert S. Teachout, SHRM-SCP September 18, 2023

Takeaway: If an employee advises their employer that a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance conflicts with an employer's policy, the employer should engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is possible. Following the recent Supreme Court ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, employers must meet a higher standard for undue hardship to deny a religious accommodation than the previous de minimis standard.

​The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that seven health care workers' claim that their employers violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by denying them a religious exemption from Maine's COVID-19 vaccination mandate was properly dismissed. Granting the exemptions would cause the employers undue hardship, the appeals court decided.

Since 1989, Maine law has required certain licensed health care facilities to ensure that employees are vaccinated against various diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B and influenza. The law allowed exemptions from these vaccination requirements if an employee provided: a physician's written statement that immunization against one or more diseases might be medically inadvisable; or a written statement that vaccination was contrary to a sincere religious or philosophical belief.

In 2019, the state legislature amended the law, eliminating the religious and philosophical exemptions, and in 2021 added COVID-19 to the list of diseases for which health care employees must be vaccinated.

The plaintiffs were employed by various covered health care facilities and alleged that their sincerely held religious beliefs prevented them from receiving any of the available COVID-19 vaccines. They objected because of the use of cell lines of aborted fetuses in the vaccines' development and production, which conflicts with the employees' belief "that all life is sacred, from the moment of conception to natural death, and that abortion is a grave sin against God and the murder of an innocent life." The employees did not challenge the requirement to be vaccinated against the other diseases.

Each employee requested a religious exemption and accommodation from their employer to be excused from receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. They offered to comply with other health and safety requirements to facilitate their religious exemption, such as wearing facial coverings, submitting to reasonable testing and reporting requirements, and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms. However, the health care facilities denied the requests, saying that the state vaccination mandate did not permit religious exemption. When the employees continued to refuse to be vaccinated, they were terminated from employment.

The employees then filed a suit against the health care providers, claiming that the refusal to accommodate their religious beliefs by exempting them from the COVID-19 vaccination mandate was unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of religion in violation of Title VII. The employees also filed a claim against three state officials and the employers, asserting that the vaccination requirement violated their rights under the Free Exercise and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution by allowing medical but not religious exemptions.

Court Reponse

The district court dismissed the charges. It found that the health care facilities could not have offered the requested religious accommodation without violating state law and risking onerous penalties, creating an undue hardship that precludes liability under Title VII. And it found the vaccine mandate is a religiously neutral law of general applicability rationally related to Maine's legitimate public health interests, and so does not violate the Free Exercise or Equal Protection Clauses.

The health care employees then appealed to the 1st Circuit.

In reviewing the Title VII religious accommodation claim, the appeals court noted that the standard at the time of the hearing for undue hardship was that it be more than de minimis but acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court had heard arguments asking it to reconsider that standard—since revised by the Supreme Court in Groff v. DeJoy on June 29, 2023.

But the court explained that its ruling did not depend on the de minimis formulation, since the employees' requested accommodation would constitute an undue hardship under any plausible interpretation of statutory text. Ruling that the consequences of granting the employees a religious exemption would clearly impose an undue hardship by creating a substantial risk of enforcement, fines and license suspension, the 1st Circuit dismissed the employees' Title VII claims.

The appeals court found that the health care employers would most likely risk loss of their state operating licenses if they granted the employees their requested religious exemptions. In fact, the court noted, plaintiffs themselves had noted that the governor had issued a press statement threatening "to revoke the licenses of all health care employers who failed to mandate all employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine." In addition, the court noted that the facilities could be liable for significant fines of up to $1,000 per violation per day.

However, the court ruled that the workers' claim for relief under the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution was plausible, because "the mandate allows some number of unvaccinated individuals to continue working in health care facilities based on medical exemptions while refusing to allow individuals to continue working while unvaccinated for religious reasons." That claim was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Lowe v. Mills, No. 22-1710 (May 25, 2023).

Robert S. Teachout, SHRM-SCP, works in the Washington D.C., area and is a legal editor for XpertHR, a service helping HR build successful and purposeful workplaces.



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