Federal court grants injunction reversing university’s denial of religious exemptions from COVID vaccine mandate, spars over inquiry into employees’ sincerity

by | May 31, 2024

Believe it or not, legal disputes over vaccine mandate policies from the COVID-era continue to work their way through various courts. This month, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a preliminary injunction to employees of the University of Colorado at Anschutz, who were denied a religious exemption from the school’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement, overturning a district court’s ruling which upheld the vaccine policy.

Most notably, the 2-1 court majority held that the university’s inquiry into the nature of each employee’s religious objection violates their First Amendment rights under the Establishment Clause. Each employee requesting a religious exemption was asked:

1) Please explain why your sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents you from getting a COVID-19 vaccination? Please include a detailed response. 2) Have you had an influenza or other vaccine in the past? How does this differ?

The university explained that such questions were designed to determine whether the beliefs at issue were in fact religious and were sincerely held. As the dissent noted, that is a “difficult and delicate task,” but “the mere assertion of generic religious objections is not sufficient to invoke First Amendment protections.”

The majority, however, found the inquiry to be too invasive. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

The Administration’s official religious exemption form did not ask whether an applicant’s sincerely-held religious belief prevented her from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. It instead asked “why” an applicant’s “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents” her “from getting a COVID-19 vaccination.”  The Administration also demanded that applicants explain whether they “had an influenza or other vaccine in the past,” and justify how “this differ[s].” … In response to the Administration’s demands, some applicants submitted numerous pages of explanation of their religious beliefs, including deeply personal and private details about their religious journeys.

[The] Administration decided that a Roman Catholic applicant’s religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine “does not constitute a religious belief, but a personal objection,” because in the Administration’s view, it is “of a personal nature and not part of a comprehensive system of religious beliefs.”  That is precisely the sort of religious entanglement the Establishment Clause proscribes.

Dissenting judge David Ebel agreed that a policy favoring one religious belief (those who object to all vaccinations) over another (those who object only to the COVID-19 vaccine) is unconstitutional, and would have granted the injunction on that basis. But he disagreed that the policy is evidence in itself of animus and hostility toward religions. Further, he would have upheld the university’s inquiry into employee beliefs as constitutional. “The University is entitled to ask an individual requesting a religious exemption to explain the belief upon which that request is based,” he argued. “How else could the University determine whether and how it could accommodate the request?” Judge Ebel would also have upheld an amended policy that removed the employee inquiry and based exemptions on the nature of the employee’s job requirements, but the majority found the amended policy to be pretextual and creating the same outcome.

The appeals court ruling orders the trial court to grant the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction that would reverse plaintiffs’ religious exemption denials pursuant to both the original (September 1) and amended (September 24) policies, and it requires the university to revoke and re-examine all other denials of religious accommodation requests.

Importantly, the decision impacts only the vaccination mandate examined in this particular case. The court emphasized the specific details surrounding the university’s implementation of the policies in question. But it does raise important general questions about how and to what extent an employee’s religious accommodation request can be scrutinized for its sincerity.

For more on the intersection of vaccine mandates and religious liberty, check out Season 3, episode 3 of BJC’s essential podcast, Respecting Religion. BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman and Executive Director Amanda Tyler discuss the issue with clarity and detail in that episode from 2021.