With the FDA's approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine hot off the presses, get ready for a slew of vaccine mandates from governments, employers, universities and commercial establishments. This added imprimatur has encouraged some to require their employees, students or customers to get jabbed if they want to work for, study with, eat and drink at or otherwise engage with these organizations.
But these mandates often include two broad exemptions for medical disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs. So how does an agency, school, employer or commercial establishment who wants to require its patrons to be fully vaccinated determine who qualifies for an exemption? Don't be surprised if the courts are asked to sort this out.
While medical exemptions would appear to rely on objective standards, the relative newness of these vaccines may muddy those waters. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, mandate issuers have adopted a range of approaches: "[A]llowable medical exemptions vary widely by institution. Some spell out a short list of conditions, most of them rare. Others leave it open-ended, requiring that the person’s health-care provider document any reasons for an exemption request."
Religious objections seem more murky. It is difficult for an employer, let alone a bar or restaurant, to challenge a person's proclaimed sincere religious belief. But, "[e]mployers are legally allowed to ask if an employee’s concerns about the vaccine are due to its safety, effectiveness, or political beliefs, or even the company’s authority to require the shot, and those are not considered religious beliefs, so a company can deny that exemption." (https://www.nbc15.com/2021/08/22/catholic-leaders-issue-new-guidance-those-looking-be-exempt-vaccines-religious-reasons/) Or, an employer, such as the Archdiocese of Chicago, can simply refuse to recognize a religious exemption. https://www.chicagobusiness.com/health-care/archdiocese-chicago-requires-vaccines-denies-(religious-exemptions)
Recent cases - such as the decision upholding the University of Indiana's vaccine mandate for students and staff - have supported the authority to issue vaccine mandates. But the complexity of applying mandate exemptions seems likely to spawn more legal challenges.
Employers are legally allowed to ask if an employee’s concerns about the vaccine are due to its safety, effectiveness, or political beliefs, or even the company’s authority to require the shot, and those are not considered religious beliefs, so a company can deny that exemption.