COVID-19 vaccine mandates continue expanding, including President Biden’s recent announcement to require all employers with at least 100 employees to likewise impose such requirements. Meanwhile, increasing voices are expressing concerns and are invoking religious, medical, and other objections to such blanket mandates. Are such objections legally valid? Should they, or must they, therefore be honored as exemptions to vaccine mandates? What about COVID-19 testing, and masking too?
“The First Amendment ministerial exception protects a religious organization's employment relationship with its ministers, from hiring to firing and the supervising in between.”
This summer, with the foregoing declaration, the en banc Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) dismissed a minister’s hostile work environment claim against his church employer and significantly clarified and strengthened religious institutions’ rights pertaining to their employment of ministers. The Court’s decision in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City, overturned a smaller panel of the Circuit Court holding that the “ministerial exception” was not applicable and therefore that ministerial employees could pursue hostile work environment claims.
As a result of this decision, churches and other worshipping bodies within the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction (and perhaps beyond), should enjoy legal protection from a wider range of ministerial employment-related claims as a result of the decision. Such worshipping bodies may continue to lean into their sincerely held religious beliefs as a strong basis for their important employment-related decisions. But this decision intensifies a split among the federal courts of appeals, which may lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling with further clarification. The following paragraphs provide some background to the decision, analyze the court’s reasoning, and discuss implications for religious employers and further court proceedings.
May employers legally require COVID-19 shots for all employees? According to updated guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the answer is yes: employers may legally require all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19. On the other hand, the Biden administration just directed federal agencies to neither mandate shots nor require related disclosures from federal employees. And, as the New York Times recently reported, some states are pushing back on vaccination mandates.