Religious Exemptions from COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

Chaplains are involved now more than ever in conversations about religious exemption from vaccine mandates in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. What should chaplains do?

This webinar will help chaplains, spiritual care managers, and others to prepare for those conversations. The panel presents legal, HR, administrative,and spiritual care perspectives from leading experts in their fields.

Transcript of webinar:

Michael Skaggs (00:05):

The webinar on religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. My name is Michael Skaggs. I’m director of programs for the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. We’re very happy to have you with us today. Let me say just a few words on behalf of the lab while we get started here and then I’ll turn it over to Ron. First, I want to thank today’s events sponsors who have made the webinar possible. ACPE, the standard for spiritual care in education. The Association for Professional Chaplains, the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, and Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains are supporting this webinar as is the American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration. Thank you all very much for your support.

Michael Skaggs (00:45):

Second, like most of our events, this is being recorded as well as live streamed on Facebook. So if you need to leave early or if you miss a point, or whatever, don’t worry, you’ll get a recording email to you early next week, and you can always go back and watch again and catch up on whatever you need to.

Michael Skaggs (01:03):

When we do send out that link, it will have a link to a survey in there. It just takes a minute or two about your experience here. If you could just take a couple of seconds to fill that out, that’d be really great. It helps us plan for future events. So with that, let me turn it over to Ron Oliver, past president of the Association of Professional Chaplains, who will introduce our panelists and moderate today. I will be in the background. I’ll still be here. So if you have any technical problems, send me a message and chat. I’ll be happy to help you out. Thank you all for being here.

Ron Oliver (01:33):

Thank you, Michael. And thank you everyone for joining us. Clearly, this is an important topic during a very stressful time in our country, and we’re so grateful for our time together. We have some expert panelists and I’ll introduce each of them as they begin their talk. The format for our conversation today is each panelists will take about 10 minutes to cover the topic that we’ve asked them to, and then the rest will be question and answer because we think that there are clearly a lot of questions out there to be spoken to.

Ron Oliver (02:09):

First, we’re going to set the ground work with the legal background and then we’re going to follow with the discussion from a HR professional on the way. The law, if you will, is operationalized in systems and then finally we’ll have a professional chaplain who will talk about the way that she and her organization have found working through religious exemptions, how that’s worked. So let’s get right in it.

Ron Oliver (02:38):

Our first speaker is Alina Klimkina, and Alina is a partner at Dinsmore & Shohl, a law firm serving numerous faith based healthcare organizations. A lot of expertise in this area. Alina and her firm have particular expertise on the legal aspects of religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. Alina will establish for us the EOC perspective on religious exemptions for vaccine mandates. Alina, thank you for being with us, and we look forward to what you have to say.

Alina Klimkina (03:12):

Good afternoon, everyone. With surge in Delta cases across the country, and of course the FDA’s approval of Pfizer vaccine, more and more employers are now implementing mandatory vaccination policies. Most, of course, of you know, that an employer must make reasonable accommodations to mandatory vaccine plans under both the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA because of an employee has disability, and secondly, due to an employee’s religious objection to vaccination.

Alina Klimkina (03:44):

Today, however, my goal is to focus on religious objections to vaccination and to provide a very brief overview of the legal standard for religious exemptions. So we won’t touch today on medical exemptions or those subject to an employee’s disability. But of course, don’t forget that that’s a separate subset as well.

Alina Klimkina (04:06):

So the threshold inquiry to any requests for religious accommodation under federal law is whether an employee has a sincerely held religious belief practice or observance, which prevents them from receiving the vaccine. Now, the language seems simple, but under federal law, it’s quite broad and very inclusive. By many practitioners, it is viewed as a low standard or bar. Under federal law, sincerely held religious beliefs include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is actually right or wrong from that employee’s perspective, and those beliefs which are sincerely held with a strength of traditional religious views.

Alina Klimkina (04:48):

The term religion includes all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as religious belief. Now, this does not mean that any kind of belief, which is personally, sociologically, or philosophically rooted is based in religion. Those types of personal beliefs are viewed by the EOC and by courts alike both in state and federal courts to be insufficient. Thus, it can be very difficult to discern religious beliefs from those which are purely personal or philosophical or sociological.

Alina Klimkina (05:25):

If a person’s objection is connected or somehow tied to their stated religious belief, you must generally assume that is sincerely held unless you have some sort of good faith and objective basis for questioning the religious nature or the sincerity of that state of belief.

Alina Klimkina (05:43):

Now, I must say that is incredibly difficult to do because most of us have very strong personal beliefs as it relates to vaccination, and particularly during this very tumultuous and difficult time as Ron referenced. Examples of when you may have a basis to question the belief includes for instance, when there is no connection between the belief or any kind of religious observance, practice, or view. W.

Alina Klimkina (06:10):

Hen, my personal favorite, a religious certificate is obtained from a church online, I believe these are currently sold for about $30, not to make just of the situation or when, of course a person adopts a belief in response to a vaccination mandate. So those are all instances when you have a strong basis to question the belief.

Alina Klimkina (06:33):

Some of course, as many of you know are more obscure. At times, you receive a request where an individual’s belief is stated, but not connected to the objection for vaccination. That’s another example, when you might have a basis to question the belief. If an employee’s purported reason is based on distrust of the vaccine or some sort of personal philosophy or something they read scientifically online, this will not give rise in most cases to the level of a sincerely held religious belief practice or observance.

Alina Klimkina (07:09):

Regardless, my caution to you is don’t make assumptions. If you have reason to doubt or question, engage in the interactive process to determine the answer. And in some cases, you may have the right to request additional information or documentation from a specific employee. Part of your process, and this analysis may entail requesting further documentation regarding a person’s faith system to determine what in fact and whether that person has a truly sincerely held religious belief.

Alina Klimkina (07:42):

Now, again, very difficult not to do in all instances, but as I mentioned earlier, that EOC cautions that if it is stated, so if the employee is sincerely held religious belief is clear on the face of their request that’s made, you must assume it to be true or genuine or sincerely held.

Alina Klimkina (08:05):

If you determined, That an exemption may be applicable, your next step of force is to determine whether there may be a reasonable accommodation and what may be suitable. Regardless of the questions that you pose, your interactive process should be well thought out and documented to show the steps that you took as an organization to engage in that interactive process and to consider the religious exemption.

Alina Klimkina (08:31):

This includes just as a few examples used by most employers, a reasonable accommodation request form, which of course is tailored to the specific organization needs and circumstances at play and documenting any conversations related to that request, as well as reasonable accommodations, which were requested, offered, accepted, or rejected.

Alina Klimkina (08:57):

When possible, that EOC views that a person or a team of individuals ought to review the requests to ensure consistency and practice, and uniform application. And then of course you make a decision as to whether or not an accommodation is appropriate.

Alina Klimkina (09:19):

Now, in some instances, one may not be. As you might find, it is not reasonable in nature. Alternatively, you might consider whether or not you’re actually obligated to provide an accommodation requested and ask an employee to offer an alternative, but don’t feel as if you are required to be locked into an accommodation proposed by the employee or suggested. Again, the focus comes back to the interactive process and the law permits you to revisit just as with the initial request and potential follow-up for additional information or clarification.

Alina Klimkina (10:01):

The law permits you to revisit the accommodation requests and adjust as maybe necessary. Once you decide that and determine what type of accommodations might be appropriate, you must take into account a force, a specific work environment. And this context that could for instance, include requiring the employees to mask at all times, engage in weekly or bi-weekly COVID testing, work at some sort of social distance, include a reassignment or some sort of combination of all of these options.

Alina Klimkina (10:36):

Remote work of course is a very popular option as well for those who make the requests. So with that said, again, very particular individualized inquiries and assessments based on the specific facts and circumstances presented in the employee’s request. And Ron, I will turn it over to our next panelist.

Ron Oliver (11:04):

Thank you, Alina. That was very dense. Thank you so much for all that you packed in there. And no doubt, just watching the chat stream, there are going to be a fair number of questions. Thank you for setting the foundation for us. So, folks, I’d like to introduce you now to Jeremy Sadlier. Jeremy is a certified in healthcare human resources and is the executive director of the American Society for Healthcare Human Resource Administration, ASHHRA. Prior to that role, he spent 21 years as a human resource practitioner and leader at advocate Aurora Health, where he was the south market human resources director with oversight for quaternary, tertiary medical center on the south side of Chicago and other facilities.

Ron Oliver (11:52):

So he’s got the dual role of operationalizing this and now leading a national organization that also has a significant touch with this. Jeremy will describe the practicalities of applying the law that Alina just talked about by HR administrators and the exemption committee serving on an organization. I saw a question come through the chat. How is this relevant for chaplains? And very often chaplains are serving on these committees. Jeremy, thank you for sharing your expertise with us and the floor is yours.

Jeremy Sadlier (12:28):

Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I’m excited to be here and to sort of talk to this process. I’m going to be speaking from both practical experience having spent a good number of years as a healthcare HR practitioner, where we did have a formal exemption process at my previous organization. And obviously as the executive director of ASHHRA where our membership are having some of the same conversations and discussions that the folks on this webinar are having about the role and making sure that this process works well and so on.

Jeremy Sadlier (13:10):

So I’ll start, and in follow up to Alina, the first and most important perspective from a human resource perspective is to make sure that you have a well-defined documented process for exemption requests. It’s probably not and it’s unlikely that that is going to fall to the responsibility of chaplains, but it’s entirely possible that you will be working with peers that are somewhat unfamiliar with creating a safe process and arming you with that knowledge, I think is as important as arming the human resource folks and anybody else that may sit on a committee or a panel to do this work.

Jeremy Sadlier (13:50):

There’s an old adage in human resources that if you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen. So having that defined process that employees need and understand and know that they need to follow is incredibly beneficial for protecting your organization. Any time you deviate from that process, or you’re inconsistent within that process, it creates legal vulnerabilities. And ultimately that’s what human resources is here to do, which is to apply employment law in a way that reduces vulnerabilities for the organization.

Jeremy Sadlier (14:23):

And you guys can be part of that process by making sure that if you’ve got ill-informed or lax process, you can use this learning as that suggestion. I think it’s important where possible, and it’s not always possible that chaplaincy is part of the makeup of any committees that are considering exemptions. And that may be religious exemptions, but it’s not unusual for an organization say, “We’re going to take our religious exemptions and our disability related exemptions and consider them one in the same.”

Jeremy Sadlier (15:02):

So it’s entirely possible that everything that we’re talking about here may also apply on the health side. So just to understand that you may be pulled into that as well even if it’s not necessarily your ballywick or your expertise. So who should be on a committee? First and foremost, I think too many cooks in the kitchen. They’re going to ruin the roast. But I think it is important to consider some of these roles. Obviously, human resources it’s not unusual, it’s generally their practice and they’re the ones that are creating a committee to consider exemptions.

Jeremy Sadlier (15:38):

Chaplaincy, obviously your theological expertise is incredibly important within the conversation. And we’ll talk a little bit about what your role is in a moment, but that expertise that you bring to a committee of this type is incredibly beneficial, incredibly important. I would consider in a healthcare setting, medical ethicists epidemiologists, often members of leadership are considered on a committee of this type. If it’s a significantly sized organization and employee health representative may be included because they’re often the process owner of those vaccines are being given on a campus or within the organization.

Jeremy Sadlier (16:21):

I think what’s incredibly important to consider is that every member of a committee is equal when we’re doing this work. So whether you’re a chaplain, whether you’re in human resources, whether you’re the CEO of the organization, when it comes to this committee work, everyone needs to be on equal footing. We can’t let a singular member who is the most outspoken or in hierarchical terms is the highest in the organization, deviate the process or circumvent the process by just having their own opinions be the decision that’s ultimately made.

Jeremy Sadlier (16:56):

So there needs to be some strengths from our chaplains and the other folks on this committee to say, “Look, I’m willing to challenge even folks that hierarchically are above me in an organization to make sure that we’re coming to good decisions.” In terms of a chaplain’s role on a committee of this type, you’re not there to advocate for a guest. You’re there simply to help make a good decision based on the facts that are in front of you.

Jeremy Sadlier (17:24):

So it is not unusual for chaplaincy to look at a role like this and think, “Okay, I’ve got a larger part to play. I’m the defendant in this. I’m sort of helping make the case.” If we look at this as a jury trial, you’re not a defendant. You’re not a plaintiff. What you are is a juror and use the information that’s in front of you to help make a good decision for the organization.

Jeremy Sadlier (17:53):

I think another consideration and something that is important for you to understand is the volume that this may come with. Depending upon the size of the organization, there could be one, two requests in a smaller organization for an organization like the one that I came from. There literally could be hundreds, if not thousands of requests of this type.

Jeremy Sadlier (18:17):

So it’s important to understand that many hands make light work. Also that there needs to be a consistent cadence to make sure that the responses that we are putting back out to folks after considering their cases are done in a timely manner, because this is a very stressful time for folks that are looking for exemptions.

Jeremy Sadlier (18:41):

They are often weighing the decisions as to whether or not I will continue as an employee, whether or not I will circumvent or forego my sincerely held religious beliefs for the sake of a paycheck. So it’s important that we have relatively rapid turnover and a consistent cadence when the volume is high. In terms of the process, it’s important and necessary for the employer, usually through human resources to set up an interactive process for making these accommodation requests.

Jeremy Sadlier (19:17):

It should be well-known. It should be relatively well-publicized. It should be semiformal to formal to make sure, again, that the supporting documentation is there when those requests are made. You don’t ever want to have a situation where an employee is unaware of the process, unaware that they could make a request of this type or feels pressured based on a lack of knowledge to do something that may be against their genuine religious beliefs.

Jeremy Sadlier (19:52):

It’s important that those requests are completed with appropriate documentation as necessary. Again, we should assume that the request is based off of a sincerely held religious belief, but as Alina said, there are times where folks are looking for this process or the ADA process to be a circumvention of a political perspective or something they saw on social media and have just made the decision that they don’t want to be vaccinated, et cetera. So I think it’s important to understand that while we’re coming at it from the perspective that it’s a sincerely held belief. There are situations where that is not necessarily the case.

Jeremy Sadlier (20:43):

Obviously, that group needs to convene to consider one or multiple requests. That’s your opportunity to be the voice of chaplaincy. It’s your opportunity to have the perspective of your peers, of the chaplaincy industry and make sure that the other folks that are considering the request, understand the nuance of these theological perspectives and events. Once those decisions have been made, it’s important to formally notify an employee of a decision. And in some cases, especially in healthcare situations, chaplaincy maybe leaned on to help explain a decision that that is not supportive of an exemption.

Jeremy Sadlier (21:38):

So understand you may be on a panel or you may be part of the decision-making process or you, and then some of your peers may be then pulled in to say, “Well, this is why we feel like there was something missing or wasn’t significant documentation, or we don’t see the connection to a particular doctrine, et cetera.”

Jeremy Sadlier (22:00):

As Alina said, it’s also important to be flexible. At the end of this process, while this may be the binding decision, it can’t be the permanent decision. There ought to be an opportunity for appeal or review as circumstances for both employees and businesses change over time. So having a flexible and contiguous process that allows someone to make a secondary request or provide new and important information is always beneficial and protecting the organization and ultimately making an employee feel engaged in the process and understand that their organization has their best interest in mind, even in the case where the exemption is not upheld.

Jeremy Sadlier (22:46):

And again, I think the last thing, I think also an important part to say is that if you’re part of the exemption process from a religious perspective, it’s entirely possible that that will then carry over and you will be part of the process when it comes to medical exemptions. They’re often held and handled by the same team, just for expedience. So please be prepared to participate in very much the same way even though you may not have the same expertise in the medical exemption process. I hope this has been helpful and I’ll turn it back over to Ron.

Ron Oliver (23:25):

Thank you, Jeremy. I appreciate your unpacking the process. There have been a number of questions in the chat about how committees could be set up or should be set up and then how they work, and you certainly added to our knowledge on that. Friends, colleagues, I’m glad to be able introduce to you Carolanne Hauck, who is currently the board chair for the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. One of our webinar sponsors, thank you. Since 2013, she has served as director of chaplaincy care and education at Penn Medicine hospital in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where she has been intensely involved with religious exemption considerations.

Ron Oliver (24:09):

Carolanne will offer her perspective as a committee member on the situational and operational challenge she’s seen with the religious exemption process. Carolanne, thank you for your leadership at the NACC and for bringing your experiences as a practitioner forward to help us. The floor is yours. Thank you.

Carolanne Hauck (24:27):

Thank you, Ron. I appreciate that. I also wanted to thank Alina and Jeremy for affirming the process that we used here at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. I feel really good about that. The points that you were bringing out and I’m like, “Yes, we did that. We did that.” So I will share with you that I worked with two other people, the SVP of legal services and SVP of human resources. We followed the criteria. We had the point set up and I want to tell you, as one chaplain to other chaplains, it was really difficult. It really was a hard process. So what we did was we each read a grouping separately. Maybe we had 20 and made a decision based on our own information, and based on what we read. The easy ones were the ones that clearly met the criteria.

Carolanne Hauck (25:28):

For example, we had a physician assistant who wrote that the use of fetal cells in the testing and/or manufacturing prevents him from the vaccines. He also shared how, as a provider, he had to switch practices to work in a practice that gave room to him to not have to vaccinate children or to prescribe birth control. He also wrote how he came to his beliefs after his daughter was born and what he learned working on the board of a pro-life organization.

Carolanne Hauck (26:05):

So we saw many connections throughout his writing that this was a sincerely held belief of his. On the other hand, some were not religiously based at all and instead focused on the mandate and saying that the mandate was wrong. There were also others that it was easy to see that everything was copied and pasted. There were certain phrases that we got used to seeing.

Carolanne Hauck (26:34):

One of those was, “I’m careful about what I eat, drink, and consume.” Now, when I’m having a conversation with someone, I never say those things together. I’m careful what I eat, drink and consume. So we started to see that, “Oh, yes, indeed. You can get things off the internet, and we found out that for just $25, you can buy an attestation that you’re a member of a church that is against vaccinations and give scripture references to support that.”

Carolanne Hauck (27:06):

So we would come together then and discuss what our position was. And I will tell you that most of the time we were already coming to the same place. Sometimes we all came and said, “I’m not sure about that.” We had a really good discussion and my voice was just as strong as the attorneys and our SVP of legal services. I just wanted to point that out since Jeremy brought that up. I really appreciated that.

Carolanne Hauck (27:37):

They did rely on me from where I was coming from my expertise, just as we relied on the human resource part and also the legal part. But what was really difficult for me was that as I read so many of them and began to see this cutting and pasting, I felt that it was making a mockery of those that really did have the sincerely held religious beliefs. That was really hard for me to read over and over again.

Carolanne Hauck (28:15):

There were some that I read where I knew the individual and it was just really disappointing personally that people would make some things up. But one thing that was really very, very helpful that I would like to share with you is that one day there was a knock on my door and a gentleman came into my office and I thought he was here to fix my computer. And he said, “Carolanne, I’m not here for that. Can we talk?”

Carolanne Hauck (28:44):

So he started to share with me that his religious exemption was denied. He said, “I just want to know if you can just give me some insight into why mine was denied, but other people in my church, it was granted.” I told him, “I don’t remember yours specifically, but this is what we were looking for.” He said, “I can see where you’re coming from.” He said, “I don’t think I made those connections.”

Carolanne Hauck (29:13):

So I felt really bad because after talking with him, I thought this is a person with sincerely held religious beliefs. But what I read did not support that. So I was feeling sad about that. And he said to me, “Please do not apologize.” He said, “You did what you were supposed to do.” He said, “In fact, when I first got the denial, I went to my pastor because I felt very hurt,” he said. He said that his pastor told him, “Oh, you don’t know that maybe those people who were making that decision are being guided by God, and that for you, the vaccination is what you need.”

Carolanne Hauck (29:58):

He said to me, “Carolanne, I want you to believe that.” I could cry now about that because it was just very, very meaningful to me. It gave me more energy then to be able to continue. I thought, “You know what, I do pray before I read these.” I asked for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. So that was really helpful to me. It was also helpful to know that it was very difficult for the other two people on the team, but together we really felt supportive. So I think I will hand it back to you, Ron, and see if there’s any questions.

Ron Oliver (30:41):

Thanks, Carolanne. Appreciate it. This is, as you well described, is gritty work. I mean, it’s soulful work and thank you. Well, I’m going to bring our other panelists, Jeremy and Alina, back to the screen, invite them back to the screen and we will tackle the 500 questions that are here. So let’s get right to it. Carolanne, I think this… let me add one more preface statement. I’m going to pitch this to one of the panelists and then leave it to the other two if you have comments that you want to add to that, please do. Carolanne, I believe you just touched on this and this is why I’ll go with this question here. What if a person sincerely held belief is in opposition with the actual religion that they are espousing?

Ron Oliver (31:36):

So the example that was given by Meredith in the question, for example, Judaism’s highest value is preserving life, but a Jewish person asks for exemption. How did you feel that? We thought we’d start with the hardest question right at the beginning.

Carolanne Hauck (31:55):

So for me, what I would be looking for, or what are the other things that were written about this person’s beliefs that made that connection, so to speak as to why to grant this? Because there could be one person of the Jewish faith that we deny and another that we would grant. I think maybe in an ideal world, we could interview everybody but you can’t. So you have to rely on what’s read and the connections that they make from their personal beliefs to their religion.

Ron Oliver (32:33):

Alina, Jeremy.

Alina Klimkina (32:34):

Yeah. If I may, I agree completely with Carolanne and I would add that, keep in mind that their religious belief practice or observance does not necessarily need to be tied to a church or to a particular religion. So when you’re looking for that standard, you’re really thinking in determining whether beliefs are religious. You consider and must think whether or not it addresses some sort of fundamental and ultimate question that has to do with a deep imponderable matter. I’m quoting a circuit court now.

Alina Klimkina (33:13):

So the legal standard is really not necessarily in line with what a particular religion must say or believes. So it’s a little bit of a different analysis. You also have to keep in mind and consider whether those comprehensive beliefs are accompanied by some formal and external sign or expression. But again, you can’t require somebody to necessarily tie it to an organized religion or a specific religion like Christianity or Judaism.

Jeremy Sadlier (33:46):

The only thing that I would add is the process would be incredibly easy. If we could just pick the religions that had any doctrine that said that we can grant an exemption, but that would also mean that the moment that somebody that practices that religion chose to become vaccinated, it throws the whole thing on its ear. So it’s never as simple as I like practicing X and therefore I should be exempt.

Ron Oliver (34:15):

Thank you. Alina, I believe this is a clarifying question from Elsie. Are your responses that you gave a bit ago in your introductory remarks about employer’s responsibility.

Alina Klimkina (34:28):

That’s exactly right. And of course there are public accommodations, but mostly the EOC has provided ample guidance to employers. So that is the focus here.

Ron Oliver (34:39):

Got it. Alina, staying with you, there’s a question that is in the chat. And then also somebody texted me, I’ll give you both of them. So Robin made a statement. My institution is not allowing religious exemption as a reason to not get the vaccine. So hold that. And then the text I received was NYS, I think that’s New York State DOH, Department of Health has taken religious exemption off the table as an option. Do you have an opinion about that?

Alina Klimkina (35:12):

Well, first I am not licensed to practice in New York. Although I have had cases and have clients who have operations there, I don’t spend quite as much time following their specific guidance, but I will say the state has authority to promulgate certain laws, rules, and regulations. So most states have done that. Some have expanded those definitions and exemptions to allow individuals to obtain exemptions, not just based upon religious beliefs, but upon genuine or sincerely held beliefs that are not necessarily tied to religion.

Alina Klimkina (35:49):

So in addition to, of course, the state laws and state mandates and requirements, there are also federal rules, regulations, and laws. So Title VII requires that for employers. And I think you have to, the threshold question, you must answer here is what entity or which entities are looked at. So are you looking at an employer, or employer-employee relationships such that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act would apply and the New York State counterpart, which provides civil rights and obligations as well, or are you looking at a health regulation, which deals with public health and safety?

Alina Klimkina (36:32):

I agree of course with New York’s right, because it is a New York’s right as a state’s to promulgate those regulations and rules related to how health departments ensures the safety and minimizes the threat from the pandemic. And of course to answer the first question, which I think I probably just did as well, if you are working for an employer and your employer conducts business and sends emails and uses the phone, more likely than not, and you probably find that most lawyers hedge a bit because you have to take into account the specific circumstances of each situation.

Alina Klimkina (37:17):

But my guess says, there’s a really good chance that your employer, if you’re talking about an employer is subject to Title VII, and I’ve heard that question before, can we offer the medical exemption or an exemption with respect to disability, but not religion? And in most cases, the answer is no. So it’s difficult to answer whether based on your particular circumstances, but I typically would assume that your employer is covered under Title VII as well, and you would be subject to requirements and providing that exception also.

Ron Oliver (37:57):

Okay. Jeremy, if a person requests a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine, but complies with other vaccines like influenza, how might the committee seek to reconcile those, what seem to be some inconsistency?

Jeremy Sadlier (38:22):

I think that it is likely to be happening right now. It is a difficult proposition for an HR team or for a committee to consider. I think first and foremost, the committee’s best perspective is to simply review the documentation and the support for this particular request apart from any previous compliance or requests. That is going to be the safest mechanism, take the individual requests at its face value and assess based on that. With that said, it is certainly counterintuitive if someone has been compliant with all of the other vaccinations, flu, and Tdap and particularly in healthcare, all of the vaccination requirements that are necessary to practice medicine or to participate in employment in a hospital to make a singular decision based on this.

Jeremy Sadlier (39:32):

But despite all of that overwhelming evidence to say maybe this isn’t the truest belief in that moment, I still would recommend throw all of that out and assess based on the information that you have in front of you for this one particular request.

Ron Oliver (39:54):

Thanks, Jeremy. All right, Carolanne, we’re seeing a number of questions in the chat about fetal tissue, stem cells research. I don’t know if that’s in your wheelhouse in terms of how deep your biology goes.

Carolanne Hauck (40:18):

It is now.

Ron Oliver (40:18):

And along with that has the Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement regarding the COVID-19? That may be something, but a quick perspective might you know of, and if you don’t, I’m sorry, I put you on the spot that way, but it’s come up in a number of places.

Carolanne Hauck (40:36):

I’m not exactly sure if the US CCB has come out with a position on this. I do know that there are some bishops who have said, “Do not ask for…” Like in Philadelphia, for example, do not ask for a religious exemption. However, many of the religious exemptions that we granted were for until a vaccine comes out that did not use fetal cells in the manufacturing testing or in the makeup of the vaccine.

Carolanne Hauck (41:11):

For example, I will tell you, there was someone who there was no denying that this person was very, very pro-life and would have a problem with taking the vaccines. He said, “I am not anti-vax. Look at my vaccines and I will absolutely take the vaccine that comes out.” I think it’s called Novavax that will be coming out. So we granted it for the others, but not… Or until, I should say, something comes out that is not.

Ron Oliver (41:42):

Just to clarify, you talked about the bishop in Philadelphia saying don’t take the vaccine, or don’t ask for a…

Carolanne Hauck (41:50):

A priest.

Ron Oliver (41:52):

Don’t ask a priest for a [inaudible 00:41:55].

Carolanne Hauck (41:55):

Right. Yes.

Ron Oliver (41:56):

So he wasn’t making a blanket statement. He was saying, “Please, don’t go to your priest and ask for that.” Okay, thank you.

Carolanne Hauck (42:04):

Thank you. Thank you for clarifying that.

Alina Klimkina (42:06):

Ron, if I could add just briefly.

Ron Oliver (42:09):

Yes, absolutely.

Alina Klimkina (42:10):

If however, in this instance the objection to vaccination or the request, it could be written on a religious exception for him, but if it is based on science, that does not qualify as a sufficient reason to support a sincerely held religious belief, observance, or practice. And that’s also a request that we have seen frequently, believe it or not. I’ve seen numerous requests from various employers where the employee completes the form and then states a reason which is based and grounded in science, much like the reason that you cited and not connected to a religious belief practice or observance. So keep that in mind as well when you’re fielding and looking at those requests, because I don’t want to call it a trick because it’s, again, not up to us to question whether or not that belief is sincerely held, but if the reason is grounded in science, it is not religious. Courts and the EOC recognize that clearly as well.

Ron Oliver (43:16):

Great. Jeremy, we’ve talked a little bit about the… You talked a little bit about the construction of the committee. Coming at it from a different direction, somebody asks could this function of reviewing religious exemptions be folded into something like an existing ethics committee or HR committee? Or do you recommend there be a group that’s set up specifically to review as a function of their work to do the exemptions?

Jeremy Sadlier (43:50):

I certainly feel like it could be folded into another similar committee. So for example, if an organization has a committee that is regularly reviewing ADA type requests. It will be sort of a natural transition to say, “Okay. They will likely then be reviewing medical exemptions. And if they’re going to do medical exemptions, we might as well have them do religious exemptions as well.”

Jeremy Sadlier (44:20):

So it’s entirely possible. It really depends entirely on the organization and the volume. So what you’d never want to do is make it so volume that the group works too quickly or doesn’t take the responsibility serious enough. Because there are significant vulnerabilities even in the cases where you are granting exemptions, there are vulnerabilities. If we’ve done a poor job in granting an exemption for one, and an exceptional job in not granting an exemption for somebody else, and they can pull coals in the fact that appear now has an exemption and I do not because you took a much more serious approach to my request than you did somebody else’s.

Jeremy Sadlier (45:07):

So a lot of it is about what works for the individual organization. Obviously, I spoke of a relatively robust committee with multiple parts. I think that’s beneficial. It sort of takes away biases and spreads responsibility all over multiple points of view. That may not be practical for every organization. The volume may not warrant that in every organization. So it really is organization specific, volume specific. But I think having chaplaincy as a participant in this process is incredibly valuable. So if you work for an organization of any significant size and you, or up here from chaplaincy are not included in this process, make the request. Reach out to your human resources folks, reach out to your executives to say, “We belong at the table when you’re having these conversations.”

Ron Oliver (46:05):

Thank you. I’m going to share this with the panelists and let whomever wants to pick it up, pick it up. The questioner said that the committee has seen what is being described as your cut and paste style letters. So there’s language that seems to be consistent across a number of applications they’re seeing, and even if you get plagiarism internet search, you’d probably find the letter or some close edition of it out there. So the question is, is it legal, Alina and then appropriate? What do you do with that? Or is that just someone who wants to make the argument, but doesn’t know how to, and is getting help? So I want to put that out there and see what your thoughts are.

Alina Klimkina (47:08):

Yeah. I would love, of course, my fellow panelists’ perspective as well, but a couple of quick points from a legal perspective. So first again, on its base and it appears to be a sincerely held religious belief, then you must accept it as such, even if it is a cut and paste. Unfortunately, the law does not give us a lot of free rein to judge or to delve into whether or not it is truly genuine or whether or not that person wrote it.

Alina Klimkina (47:39):

Remember, the law does not require the writer or the person who’s submitting the request to be the writer. So you could have a ghost writer. But if on its face, that belief appears to be tied to religion, connected, or grounded in it, and sincerely held, you must grant their request. But coming back to the notion that if you have a reason to doubt or to question, or for instance, your organization has seen five requests, which are identical or utilize verbiage, that is identical paragraph to paragraph, word by word, then my suggestion would be to seek clarification or provide some additional documentation.

Alina Klimkina (48:25):

You have a right to do that. Of course, we’re talking now about employers, but employers have a right to inquire If they have a reason to doubt the sincerely held religious belief. Now, again, you can’t pick on people, you can’t pick and choose who’s to question, you have to be uniform and consistent in your application, but then might be an opportunity to seek clarification and verify what the true basis is or ask for some supporting documentation in that regard.

Jeremy Sadlier (48:55):

I would add there’s nothing within the exemption process that indicates that you must be eloquent and you must be articulate to have your exemption approved. And that’s incredibly important. We’re dealing with folks that have significantly different education levels, particularly in healthcare folks that are good writers and can convey a message incredibly well and folks that can’t. And those folks that can’t may have even deeper spiritual perspectives than those that can articulate it.

Jeremy Sadlier (49:34):

So I think that is incredibly important. I think the other point that Alina made is if you’ve seen a history of documents that look the same multiples, the other part that I think needs to be considered then in a situation like that is what did you do with the first few? So if you hadn’t recognized the pattern early and you’ve approved, you’ve approved, you’ve approved, I’m going to start disapproving because they look an awful lot like the ones that I saw before. You may be in a situation where a plaintiff’s attorney is going to jump all over you and your organization is going to become vulnerable.

Jeremy Sadlier (50:10):

So I think in a situation like that, you’re probably going to want to reach out to internal or external counsel and say, “What do we do? Is it a matter of we need to walk back the ones we’ve already approved, or is it a matter of we need to continue approving and make sure that we’ve got a process that consider something like this in the future?”

Ron Oliver (50:29):

Thank you.

Carolanne Hauck (50:30):

I would agree with what both of you said, and we did look back to make sure that we were being consistent. Sometimes we would read something that we said, “This sounds familiar.” And we would look back. To know that we were being consistent, that’s really a big part of this. If it dots all the I’s and crosses the T’s for a sincerely held religious belief, then you need to grant it.

Ron Oliver (51:01):

Thank you. Alina, you used the term seek clarification, and it’s sort of a casual… I mean, just out in the world, I want to get some clarification, but I’m thinking that in this context, that’s sort of a specific pathway, is it not? What does the law allow with regard to seek clarification? Are you meaning something specific and what does it imply? What does it not imply?

Alina Klimkina (51:31):

Yeah. So typically most attorneys, I find most of my colleagues and those that other firms recommend some sort of follow up in writing. So documented requests to the employee to provide additional detail or clarify how that particular belief or how that particular objection against vaccination is grounded in a person’s sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance. So once again, employers are not required to use some sort of magic language. I will say, in-house counsel and outside counsel frequently author those or go straight.

Alina Klimkina (52:14):

So we often find ourselves when applicable writing those for employers. But again, there’s not a formula. There may be a standard letter, which your organization tweaks and my recommendation of course, would be to clients who use consistent language. So to the extent that you as an organization asked certain employees for clarification, or for additional information or documentation related to their request for an exemption, you need to use the same kind of letter and format and very similar language, if not identical language for those clarification requests.

Ron Oliver (52:58):

Thank you.

Jeremy Sadlier (52:58):

The other part to consider in that is to make the language as benign as it can be. What you don’t want to do is have language that appears to question the validity of the request. So you can ask for more information. What you don’t want to do is ask for information by challenging the request. And that’s just technique. But I think it will definitely benefit engagement. For those employees that are asked for additional information and ultimately limit some vulnerabilities, eliminate some vulnerabilities for those folks that may write something that sounds more accusatory than a request for additional information.

Carolanne Hauck (53:45):

I think you both make the point that why a team is helpful, why it’s helpful to have someone from legal and someone from HR. So thank you for that.

Ron Oliver (53:58):

Well, amazingly, we are at the end of the hour, and I promise you that we touched just the very tip of the number of questions. Thank you to the many, many participants in the very tough questions, thoughtful questions that were asked. Thank you so much. I will add to what I’m sure Michael will say, my gratitude for our panelists, for their preparation, not only just for this webinar, but the competency that they’ve amassed over history and bringing it to bear and offered for us. Michael, take us home.

Michael Skaggs (54:39):

Wonderful. Thank you all for being with us. This has been so informative, so needed. The chat is alive. Certainly, there’s been lots of back and forth. It’s great to see so many chaplains really thinking really deeply about these things. It’s a difficult topic, but it’s one we need to think about, and it’s great that we see so much engagement because we know we’re going to make progress on this.

Michael Skaggs (55:00):

I want to thank again our sponsors, ACPE, APC, NACC, NAJC and Jeremy, because I’m so new with your organization, I don’t know the acronym. But Jeremy’s organization of healthcare human resources administration. We’re really grateful for everyone’s support. I will remind everyone that this was recorded. So probably Monday or Tuesday, you’ll get a link to that recording. Then we’ll post a transcript of this as well on the website with the recording. So that will let you search for specific things that you might find of interest. Thank you all for being with us this afternoon. It’s been a real pleasure and I hope to stay in touch. Have a great weekend, everybody. Bye-bye.

Ron Oliver (55:38):