British Columbia

Use caution and compassion when considering religious exemptions from workplace vaccine mandates: experts

An expert in theology and ethics says religious beliefs are open to interpretation, which makes religious exemptions from mandatory workplace vaccine policies tricky.

HR consultant advises employers seek legal advice before implementing vaccine policy

While employers can use their own discretion to determine who qualifies for a religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccination, experts advise them to get legal counsel and to be as accommodating as possible. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

More and more employers are requiring staff, contractors and visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the workplace in both the public and private sectors. However, there are always exceptions to the rule — and in some cases, those exceptions are personal and complicated. 

Health-care workers in B.C. must be vaccinated unless they qualify for medical exemptions, including severe allergic reactions or situations where a person's health is put at risk should they get vaccinated. According to the Ministry of Health, no other exemptions will be considered. 

But in other workplaces, religious exemptions may come into play, and experts say enforcing those rules are more challenging. 

Rumee Ahmed, Canada Research Chair in Theology and Ethics and a professor at the University of British Columbia, said when it comes to an individual's religious beliefs, they may not align with their leaders' messaging. 

Religion is often open to interpretation, he said.

For example, leaders with Christian Science, which historically relies on prayer for healing rather than medicine, put out a statement this year regarding COVID-19 vaccines. 

"Our practice isn't a dogmatic thing," the statement says. 

"Church members are free to make their own choices on all life decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate. These aren't decisions imposed by their church."

Ahmed said there are some very small denominations and communities that do discourage or prohibit vaccines, but again, followers are free to make their own decisions. 

Human resources consultant Cissy Pau said she hasn't had a single inquiry from clients needing help with religious exemptions — but she said that doesn't mean it won't happen. 

Pau, principal consultant with Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, said if someone is seeking a religious exemption, they should get a letter or other documents from their religious leader to verify their status. 

"If the employer has a policy that employees need to be vaccinated when they're working and there's just a religious exemption that is presented to them, they would need to try to accommodate that to the best of their ability," she said. 

Accommodations could include working from home or requesting regular COVID-19 testing for the individual. 

When it comes to formulating a mandatory vaccination policy, there isn't a lot of information out there for employers — though WorkSafeBC has some information on its website, nothing speaks specifically to religious exemptions.

Pau said anyone developing a plan should get legal advice. 

"It's so fraught with potential risks and liabilities," she said. 

"There haven't been cases that have wound themselves up through our judicial system or human rights tribunals. We haven't had cases that would ... give us direction on what can or can't happen."

Though WorkSafeBC was unable to comment on the matter, it did echo Pau's advice to seek legal counsel to ensure they take into consideration not only workplace health and safety, but labour and employment standards as well.

A federal government directive for executives, obtained by CBC Radio-Canada, advises managers to use their own discretion when determining whether an employee qualifies for a religious exemption from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Ahmed advises employers to be understanding when an employee comes to them with a religious or sincerely held belief about vaccination, and reminds them that more than 90 per cent of eligible British Columbians have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. 

"We should be as compassionate and accommodating as possible," he said.

With files from Robyn Miller and Estelle Côté-Sroka