When Gov. Jay Inslee issued his Covid-19 vaccine mandate for state employees, he left in somewhat of a legal loophole allowing employers to grant "reasonable accommodation for medical or religious reasons." And yes, for the record, it is completely legal for your employer to require a Covid vaccine.
The medical reasons part is pretty self-explanatory: "They're immunocompromised, they have had adverse reactions to vaccines...it's not medically advisable for them to take a vaccine," explains Patricia Kuszler, a professor of law at UW. The religious reasons part? Not so much.
According to Kuszler, most states require a "bona fide religious reason" for your employer to grant you a religious exemption, meaning "there's something in religious dogma that states that taking this particular vaccine is against the underlying religious precepts of that faith group." In practice, this is actually pretty tough to prove because most major religions don't prohibit vaccines.
But wait! What about those claims of fetal cells being used in the Covid vaccines—wouldn't that count as a qualifying religious claim? Not so, Kuszler says. Fetal cells haven't been used to develop vaccines for 30 or 40 years, and the current Covid vaccines don't contain any fetal cells at all. "It's just a bogus argument," she adds, noting even Pope Francis has urged people to get vaccinated.
Despite all that, if you believe you have a just claim of religious exemption, employers are legally able to—and often do—probe further. Your company may request additional documentation and ask you questions like: Have you received the polio vaccine? Did you get a flu shot? Have you vaccinated your children?
If you somehow clear those hurdles, your employer still has grounds to issue different work requirements based on your vaccination status or suspend or fire you for cause, as may have happened in the whole Washington State University football saga, when head coach Nick Rolovich requested a religious exemption and was let go anyway. "If you go to work for Home Depot, you've got to have a drug test periodically," Kuszler says. "You don't want your drug tests, you don't get to work at Home Depot. Same difference."
The debate about religious exemption will likely continue to ramp up as Boeing recently instituted a vaccine mandate of its own to comply with an executive order requiring Covid vaccines for federal contractors. Biden also just announced an emergency vaccine rule that applies to large private businesses (100 or more employees), requiring workers to either get vaccinated or face weekly Covid testing. Workers have until January 4 to comply.
Either way, Inslee's mandate seems to have the intended effect. About 49 percent of state employees were fully vaccinated as of September 6, but that number leapt to 92 percent by October 11.