Q. Have any court rulings upheld the denial of requests for exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine?

A. Yes. Coming on the heels of President Joe Biden’s plan to require millions of workers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, many employers either have already implemented or have begun implementing vaccine mandates. As expected, these mandates have triggered some employee pushback, particularly from those requesting an exemption from the vaccine requirement based on a disability or religious belief. While there have not been many published decisions on this issue yet, one recent decision from the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas provides guidance to employers in determining whether a request for exemption from a vaccine mandate based on a religious belief must be accommodated.

Court Decision

In Beck v. Williamson College of the Trades et al., No. CV-2021-007215 (Pa. Com. Pl. Aug. 24, 2021), a student attending a private, post-secondary school in Pennsylvania brought suit in state court against the school, alleging religious discrimination, among other things, based on the school’s failure to provide him an exemption from its vaccination policy based on his religious beliefs. The student, who identifies as Catholic, claimed that his objection to the COVID-19 vaccine was based on a sincerely held religious belief that the vaccines were developed from aborted fetal cell lines and that receiving any of the vaccines would compromise his ability to act in a way consistent with his Catholic faith. The student sought immediate relief from the court to allow him to continue his studies at the school without having to comply with its vaccination policy.

On September 14, the court denied the student’s request for immediate relief, and instead, upheld the school’s decision to deny the student’s request for exemption from its vaccination policy. The court found a variety of reasons for denying the student’s request. First, the court determined that the student failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing suit, which “render[ed] questionable his right to relief.” Next, in analyzing his religious discrimination claim, the court explained that the student failed to establish that his belief — from which the objection to the vaccines derives — was both sincerely held and religious. The court also found that the student failed to show a discriminatory reason for the school’s decision to require him to obtain the vaccine.

According to the court, the student could not show a sincerely held religious belief given his acknowledgment that he had previously (within the past two years and prior to matriculating at the school) obtained vaccinations with origins that he knew were similar to those of the COVID-19 vaccines. The court also observed that the student’s religious discrimination claim appeared to be a more “global,” rather than religious, objection to “unprecedented restrictions on basic human freedoms” created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, the court explained that, even assuming the student’s objection to being vaccinated was based on a sincerely held religious belief, the school had a lawful, nondiscriminatory reason for its policy — to protect the health and safety of its students and staff during a global pandemic and to better ensure the continued operations of the school. The school showed that it had applied its policy in the same manner to all students regardless of the identity or faith of those who requested an exemption. The court also found lawful the school’s policy, which required requests for religious exemption to include (1) a statement of published doctrine from the student’s religious group indicating that the vaccines violated the student’s religious beliefs; and (2) a statement from a spiritual leader of the local place of worship indicating that the student was a member of that faith. Because the school followed this policy in denying the student’s request (student’s request did not include information stating that the Catholic faith prohibited its members from obtaining the COVID-19 vaccine), the court rejected the student’s claim for wrongful expulsion. In short, the court stated that the student failed to meet his “heavy burden” that immediate relief was necessary and could not demonstrate any unlawful discrimination or expulsion.

Key Takeaways

In light of the court’s decision, employers that have already mandated or are considering mandating the vaccine should consider the following:

  • Implement, review, and update COVID-19 vaccine policies, including the process for requesting exemptions from a mandatory vaccine requirement, to ensure they are facially neutral and applicable to all employees;
  • Designate one employee or a small group of employees to review and approve requests for exemption from the vaccine mandate as an accommodation of a disability or religious belief;
  • Train management to ensure that the policies are applied consistently and uniformly, particularly with respect to accommodation requests; and
  • Post statements and continue to remind employees that the purpose of the vaccine policies is to protect their health and safety and to better ensure the continued operations of the company.

As more and more employers may face exemption requests from employees, the Troutman Pepper Labor and Employment team is ready to assist you with the advice necessary to navigate through this challenging topic.