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Religious exemptions for employer-mandated vaccines paves way for legal grey area

Companies must judge 'sincerely-held' beliefs proposed by employees based on a number of factors.

SAN ANTONIO — Vaccines and religious exemptions are nothing new, but the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a series of new questions surrounding employer-mandated shots. 

“In a sense, we are in uncharted territories,” said Bill Piatt, law professor at St. Mary’s University.

The Biden administration has mandated all federal employees to get fully vaccinated by the end of November.

Various private employers have opted in to require vaccinations as well, including Baptist Health System.

A hospital spokesperson emailed KENS 5 this statement:

Baptist Health System continues its 118-year tradition as a faith-based healthcare organization in San Antonio, and as the city’s fourth largest civilian employer, our system respects the religious beliefs and customs of its patients, employees and the community. In regards to the COVID vaccine and its employees, Baptist Health System will consider any employee’s request for exemption, whether for medical or religious reasons, and assess on a case-by-case basis. As with all protocols and decision making, Baptist Health System considers the safety of its patients, employees and community as its highest priority.

Piatt noted employers must consider proposed religious and medical objections from employees under the Equal Employment Opportunity and Americans with Disabilities Acts.

“The employer or the government is going to be in the situation of trying to determine the validity of the beliefs or the sincerity of the beliefs,” Piatt said.

Employers can weigh religious concerns on a variety of factors, which includes the safety of others due to the high-risk nature of the pandemic.

“There might be a circumstance for example where an employer couldn’t accommodate a non-vaxxed person in an emergency room, where the person is going to have to have close contact. Then the employer might be able to say look we can’t accommodate your religious exemption, you’re going to have to get the vaccination,” Piatt said.

Texas Values is an Austin-based organization that advocates on behalf of faith and freedom through public policy advocacy.

The group’s policy director, Jonathan Covey, expressed opposition to the idea of Texans contending with vaccines and employment.

“No one should be forced into healthcare decisions against their religious or moral objections. We do not know the long-term or short-term effects of the COVID shot, and people must not be forced to choose between living by their conscience and their job.”

Piatt believes the topic of religious exemptions and the coronavirus shot will eventually lead to changing legislation surrounding employer-mandated vaccines.

“We can rely on precedent in other circumstances and we can draw on old precedent but the new issues created by this pandemic are going to require legislative and judicial approaches that are new.”

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