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How Far Can Religious Exemptions Extend for Workers?

Religious freedom is a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. This right to observe the faith of one’s choice affects several types of workplace issues. For example, you cannot be denied a job based on your religion and have the right to relief if co-workers are creating a hostile work environment for you based on your faith. However, complicated questions can arise when a worker cites their religion to request a benefit of their employer or refuse to comply with a workplace policy.

Since the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available, healthcare workers and others seeking to avoid an employer’s vaccine mandate have sought religious exemptions.  Like discrimination based on race and national origin, treating a worker differently due to their religious creed is illegal, but in some instances it might be difficult to even determine if someone belongs to a particular religious group. In cases involving the COVID vaccine and other contentious issues, factors that might be considered include:

  • Directions of religious authorities — Many situations where religious edicts and workplace standards conflict relate to directives mandated by a central religious authority. For example, an employee’s faith might require them to stay home or attend services on a day when fellow workers are on the job. This is not the case with COVID-19 vaccines, as the leaders of numerous major faiths within the United States have stated that the jab does not violate their principles.
  • Sincerely held beliefs — Theoretically, someone can fall back on a purported religious tenet to support anything they like. Accordingly, the law tries to differentiate sincerely held beliefs from instances where an employee uses a religious claim as a pretext.
  • Public safety — Though the law gives a wide berth for people to practice their faith, concerns about religious freedom can be superseded by public safety considerations. Illegal behavior is not permitted even if it is part of a religious ritual. Likewise, as we’ve seen through the enforcement of lockdown rules, governments have substantial authority over matters related to public health, even when their actions might infringe on other freedoms.

A dispute over alleged religious discrimination can become highly contentious and emotional. Located in Houston, the Law Offices of David C. Holmes helps Texas clients grasp the relevant legal issues and assert their rights effectively. For a free initial consultation regarding your legal options, please call 713-586-8862 or contact us online.