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OMG! Exemptions to Vaccine Mandates based on Religious Belief

November 26, 2021

Employer-set deadlines for employees to be vaccinated are looming and some are turning to their faith for exemptions.

Protection from Discrimination on the Grounds of ‘Creed’

Medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination are clearly defined by the Ontario Ministry of Health, but exemptions on the grounds of religious belief have not been straightforward.

The Ontario Human Rights Code (Code) protects people from discrimination in the workplace because of their creed, a term commonly interpreted as religious beliefs and practices, but which can include a non-religious belief system.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) recently clarified that an employee who chooses to remain unvaccinated based on their personal preference, or based on a “singular belief” about vaccines that doesn’t connect to a broader spiritual belief system, are not entitled to religious exemptions.

Reviewing Religious Exemption Requests

Since announcing vaccine mandates, employers are receiving more requests for religious accommodation. How can an employer know whether a request is a based on a sincere religious belief or a personal preference?

To help clarify the grey areas, religious authorities in Canada and the U.S. have started to release their positions on the COVID-19 vaccine. While it is difficult to capture all religions and sub-sects, here are the positions on vaccinations of some common religious faiths in Canada:

For those practicing Catholicism, the Vatican has urged people to get the COVID-19 vaccine and approved the use of most COVID-19 vaccinations as “morally acceptable.” The Vatican adds that people who refuse vaccines because of their manner of production must avoid any risk to health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable. The Bishop of Calgary has stated the Diocese and parishes will not issue letters of exemption from vaccination.

Leaders of the Mennonite Church Canada state that there is nothing in their sacred texts or confessional statements that justify an exemption from COVID-19 vaccinations on religious grounds from within a Mennonite faith tradition. Similarly, the United Church has said that its expectation is that ministry personnel are vaccinated, that personnel are not eligible for an exemption based on religious grounds and that they also cannot issue exemption letters for followers.

  • Hinduism: Hinduism generally does not prohibit vaccination.
  • Islam: The Canadian Council of Imams and the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America both strongly support and recommend the use of COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • Judaism: The three major branches of modern Judaism include Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative. Organizations and leaders across the three branches have released statements in support of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Responding to Requests for Accommodation to Vaccine Mandates

One might think that given the very few religions that ban vaccines and the strong statements in support of vaccination by so many faith leaders, valid religious exemptions to vaccine mandates will be extremely rare.

But we are still in the early days of vaccine mandates, with limited case law, so we don’t know that for sure.

Notably, the Supreme Court of Canada has held that a sincere religious belief is enough to trigger a duty to accommodate. Even if the belief doesn’t represent official religious doctrine – indeed, even if denominational leaders say it is outright wrong – as long as the person’s belief is sincere, and is connected to their religious belief system, it must be accommodated up to the point of undue hardship.

So a Catholic who sincerely believes COVID-19 vaccination is contrary to his spiritual belief system might be entitled to a religious exemption, despite the Vatican’s statement that vaccines are “morally acceptable”.

This means that, like all requests for accommodations, employers must consider requests for religious vaccine exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Employers must consider any information provided by the employee in support of the request and whether it provides evidence of a sincere religious belief against vaccines.

In considering the request, employers may consider whether the employee’s particular faith has a history of opposition to vaccines, whether the employee’s belief is being applied consistently (e.g., do they get other vaccines?) or if they can explain any inconsistencies, and whether the employee has a long-standing affiliation with the religious organization or if they recently joined.

The employer may also consider whether the employee is giving explanations that are religious in nature, and connecting their vaccine hesitancy to their system of spiritual beliefs. Where the employee’s explanations are medical (but not enough to qualify for a medical exemption) or political in nature, or where they’re specifically against vaccination but can’t connect it to a broader spiritual belief system, they are likely not entitled to an exemption.

An updated COVID-19 exemption policy with information about religious exemptions can help ground expectations by reinforcing that personal preferences or singular beliefs will not justify an exemption. 

Finally, employers can also consider whether an exemption request would cause “undue hardship” to the employer’s ability to meet health and safety obligations. That said, a very small number of exemptions in a mostly vaccinated workplace is unlikely to be undue hardship where alternative safety measures can be taken instead (like masking, distancing, work from home, ventilation improvements, etc.).

Blog written by: Khadeeja Ahsan and Brian Gottheil