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Alabama AG advises employers on medical and religious exemptions

The joint statement’s advice limiting employers ability to inquire about the validity of a person’s religious beliefs is counter to updated federal guidance.

Attorney General Steve Marshall in 2021. Governor's Office/Hal Yeager

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Thursday issued a joint statement advising employers to liberally construe “in favor of the employee” any medical or religious exemption from the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

Marshall, six Republican state lawmakers and the state personnel director signed on to the statement from Marshall’s office that states some Alabama employers and universities have already begun implementing President Joe Biden’s mandate, which requires all federal workers and contractors to be fully vaccinated. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is expected to release a rule as early as this week that will require all employers with more than 100 workers to require employees to be vaccinated or test them weekly, according to Reuters

“To be clear, the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of Alabama, and federal law’s Title VII—all of which provide protection to employees seeking an exemption—are in no way preempted by the terms of a modified contract with the federal government,” the joint statement reads. 

“Alabama-based employers, and particularly public university employers, should liberally construe—in favor of the employee—any exemption sought by an employee for medical or religious reasons,” the statement continues. “In reviewing an employee’s request for a religious exemption, employers should not inquire into the validity of an employee’s religious beliefs, including the motives or reasons for holding the belief.” 

That guidance runs afoul of new guidance this week by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on how employers should address religious exemption requests, however. 

“Generally, under Title VII, an employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs,” the guidance reads. “However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.”

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“An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation,” the guidance continues. 

The joint statement signed by Marshall reads that public university employees who aren’t granted exemptions should contact the Civil Division in Marshall’s office. 

“The Attorney General’s Office, working with the State Personnel Department, will assist in transferring these employees into other public university/state employment,” the advisory statement reads. 

A federal judge on Monday denied a request for a preliminary injunction against the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine for that university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to The Colorado Sun. 

The two plaintiffs in the suit, a doctor and medical student who are anonymous in court records, say they object on religious grounds to taking the vaccines because of the use of cell lines that were derived from cells taken decades ago from aborted fetuses, according to The Colorado Sun. Those cells were either used in testing or production of the three vaccines approved for use in the U.S., the outlet reported. All three vaccines themselves do not contain fetal cells, however. 

The university in court filings noted that the student had previously received at least one vaccine, and the doctor regularly prescribes medicines that were tested using the same cell lines, the newspaper reported. 

“In a religiously pluralistic society, we have to respect people’s religious objections,” the newspaper quoted Peter Breen, an attorney representing the plaintiffs as saying.

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In court, the university responded by quoting a landmark 1878 U.S. Supreme Court decision on polygamy, according to the news outlet: “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Alabama has the fourth-lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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