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How Washington schools will assess employee religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The vaccine mandate requires all school employees to be fully vaccinated against the virus by Oct. 18.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Following Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement that he would expand his COVID-19 vaccine mandate to school employees, questions arose about how the legally required religious and medical exemptions would be assessed.

Medical exemptions, while not entirely straightforward, involve reasons that the vaccine could pose a risk to the employee’s health, something documentation could prove.

However, religious exemptions are vague and perhaps more difficult to understand, especially because they are based on “sincerely held beliefs” which are difficult to legally challenge.

The Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) released guidance, as well as a form, to streamline and make the process simpler for schools and their employees to request accommodation based on a religious exemption.

According to the guidance, religion is broadly defined under federal and state law, but specific categories of thought that are not included are “social, political, or economic philosophies or personal preferences.”

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OSPI urges schools to presume an employee’s request for a religious exemption is based on a sincerely held belief. The only reason, according to OSPI, for a school to question an accommodation request is if there is a valid, objective reason to do so.

When it comes to questioning the sincerity of a religious belief, an initial inquiry could include general questions that do pry into why an employee holds this or that belief. This should also not require the school to seek input from a religious leader.

Particularly, schools can ask employees about a “specific belief, tenet, or observance that conflicts with the vaccination requirement,” according to OSPI’s guidance.

When arranging accommodation, the employee and school are required to be engaged in the process. Schools do not have to choose the accommodation, which could include a schedule change or change of work station, that the employee wants. However, the school cannot claim “undue hardship” and refuse to accommodate an employee’s exemption without objective data showing an accommodation is not possible without imposing more than a small burden on the school or the school’s operations.

OSPI has released a sample form for schools to use when employees require a religious exemption. Among the questions is one asking if the employee’s religion leads them to object to either all medical treatment, vaccinations or just the COIVD-19 vaccine specifically.

The form also allows the employee to describe what kind of accommodation they are requesting.

Along with health care workers and most state employees, school employees across the state have until Oct. 18 to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, seek exemption or face termination.

Inslee’s vaccine mandate, which came amid a lag in vaccination rates and a steep rise in cases, has sparked major backlash, leading hundreds to protest in opposition in Olympia over the weekend.

The Washington Federation of State Employees even sued Inslee and the state to try to block the mandate from taking effect after it failed to reach a bargaining agreement on the effects of the requirement.

As of Aug. 30, more than 73% of Washington’s eligible population has gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.