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Employers see rise in religious exemptions after COVID-19 vaccine mandates

There are two different ways employees can be exempt from a vaccine requirement: disability reasons or a religious belief.

CONWAY, Ark. — We've already seen several hospitals and businesses, across the state, mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their employees. 

There are two different ways employees can be exempt from a vaccine requirement: disability reasons or a religious belief.

It's easy to provide documentation from a doctor or healthcare provider about a medical condition that would exempt an employee from getting vaccinated. 

Experts, like Amanda Orcutt with Mitchell Williams Law Firm, said it's not that easy for religious beliefs.

"You can't just say, 'I'm religious or I object to the vaccine or I don't believe in the vaccine.' You sort of need to provide more detail than that," she said.

Orcutt said there's no hard and fast rule to what qualifies as a religious exemption, but the employee must prove their religious belief is "sincerely held" and those beliefs do go against the vaccine.

"You have to make that link between the vaccine and the sincerely held religious belief, and if you can't, then employers could be within their right to deny the request," she said.

According to Orcutt, employers need to be clear if people are requesting religious exemptions. 

First, Orcutt said employers should create a form for people to describe the nature of their religious belief and the reason they're requesting the exemption. 

Secondly, decide when additional documentation is required. 

And finally, consider accommodations you'll allow for workers if their request is approved, Orcutt explained.

"If remote work is possible, masking and social distancing is possible. Those are the types of accommodations an employer might consider to be reasonable," she said.

Back in mid-August, Conway Regional Health System announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all employees, similar to the flu vaccine mandate they've had for years.

Except CEO Matt Troup said something was different this time around. 

"The total percentage of exemptions related to religious exemptions increased dramatically with the COVID vaccine relative to anything we've seen with the influenza vaccine," he said.

A significant number of those exemptions, according to Troup, were related to a concern over fetal cells being used in the development of the vaccine.

"It caused us to take a step back and ponder, do people really understand how ubiquitous the use of fetal cells is, either in the development or the testing in very common, everyday medicines?" he said.

The hospital put out this form that employees requesting a religious exemption have to fill out.

Listing those common medications and asking the employer to acknowledge they won't take these medicines, if they sign the form, according to Troup.

"I respect people's opinions and I respect people's willingness if that's their sincerely held belief, we just have to make sure they understand what that means," he said.

Troup said about 90% of his staff is vaccinated, partially vaccinated or exempt.