The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to all of our lives. We live and approach the world in so many new ways and the longer the pandemic persists, the more it looks like “back to normal” will not be possible. Instead, we must prepare ourselves for a new normal. Employers and employees alike are trying to adapt as best as possible. Balancing personal freedoms along with the health and safety of others has been a particular challenge during these trying times. Employers and employees have faced some difficult choices. Some employers, for instance, have mandated all employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. In fact, some employers have been required to do so based on federal directives, such as those in the healthcare industry. In the wake of such mandates, a number of employees across New Jersey have sought religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccination. Many, however, have found claiming such an exemption to prove more challenging than they might have expected.
Complications with Religious Exemptions for COVID-19 Vaccination
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination expressly prohibits:
“…any employer to impose upon a person as a condition of obtaining or retaining employment, including opportunities for promotion, advancement or transfers, any terms or conditions that would require a person to violate or forego a sincerely held religious practice or religious observance…unless, after engaging in a good faith effort, the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
In the context of the COVID-19 vaccination, this would mean that, should an employee be able to show that he or she is an observant member of a religion that prohibits receiving such a vaccine, then the employer would have to provide accommodations accordingly. Accommodating such a restriction on vaccine receipt would mean not requiring the employee to be vaccinated, but instead taking such safety measures as frequent COVID-19 testing of the employee and social distancing measures, among other things. This would allow the employee to remain faithful to religious mandates while balancing the employer’s goal of mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
The challenge in a New Jersey employee receiving such a religious exemption under the Law Against Discrimination is rooted in the fact that it appears as if most major religions do not prohibit their congregants from receiving vaccine shots, including the COVID-19 vaccine.
Christianity, for instance, is one of the world’s major religions and, while there are many different denominations, the majority of the denominations appear to have no objection to the COVID-19 vaccine. It should be noted, of course, that there are a few which do object to vaccination, but that this does not include denominations such as Roman Catholicism, Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian Universalist. Additionally, it appears as though the Jewish religion not only is unopposed to vaccination but promotes the use of vaccines as a way to maintain health and protect children against infection. Furthermore, the major religion of Islam is not opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, the Organization of Islamic Conference concluded that vaccination is okay under the tenants of Islam. The Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences also declared that porcine gelatin in vaccines is acceptable.