There is little agreement among experts as to how employers should think about religious exemptions for the COVID vaccine—or whether employers even have to offer exemptions in the first place. But for employers who do opt to offer them, there are many more questions: How can you tell if a person is faking a religious belief? Does it matter if the requester has the backing of a major religious institution? Does it matter if that institution publicly supports the vaccine and opposes exemptions? How do you judge if a request is in good faith when there is an entire industry built around helping people falsely claim religious objections? Where do you draw the line for something as complex and personal as faith?
In Tucson, Arizona, the city is in the midst of grappling with these questions. Tucson voted in mid-August to implement a COVID vaccine mandate for all city employees. The state’s attorney general then declared Tucson’s mandate illegal and promised to withhold millions in funding if the city does not repeal it in 30 days; Tucson put the vaccination policy on hold while the city decides its legal response. But the city carried on with its process of reviewing religious exemption requests in preparation for the mandate’s implementation.
To get a sense of how one major employer takes on the vagaries of religion with life-or-death stakes, Slate spoke with Ana Urquijo, the city’s interim assistant manager, who has overseen the process with a team of four human resources employees. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: How many exemption requests have you received?
Urquijo: Medical exemptions, we received 329. Religious accommodations, we received 288.
What does the process look like for reviewing religious accommodation requests?
A couple of staff got together first to sort and go through requests and try to put them in some form of categories. And then the team got together as a group and met in two-hour blocks of time over the last several weeks to go through them. [We sent out] requests for additional information where we needed more information. And now it’s kind of slowed down. I don’t know if all additional information [we requested] has made it back in, but that’s the only thing that’s pending. The majority have been reviewed already.
Were you consulting others who were also figuring out how to process these applications as you came up with your approach?
This is something new, but there are guidelines: [the Society for HR Management] puts out guidelines. So we tried to be well informed, and then we worked with our city attorney’s office to make sure that at least the benchmarks we’re setting and the criteria that we were trying to follow were consistent. Then we set up what our own process would be. But we really didn’t know what to expect until we jumped in.
How did you sort out the applications?
As you sort, you start seeing many things fall into similar categories, similar—sincerely held—religious beliefs. Then you try to sort out things that make no mention, for example, of religion. They’re just personal or political. And those are big red flags.
We put them in certain categories to narrow them down, but we go back and take a look at them again, to really see if we have what we feel we need for the nature of the request. In areas where they were very vague, we would send out a request for additional information or make a call to find out if there was anything more than that they could provide.
How do you determine the sincerity of a religious belief?
We have to be careful, we have to make sure that we’re understanding where they’re coming from. Some employees, the way they have written their request, you can tell that they put some time and effort into what they were trying to share. Some are very vague, one or two words. So that’s one way you can determine whether someone is sincere. But we presume sincerity from the beginning. We set that as our own expectation and we receive everything with that presumption. Then we jump into what the nature of the request is, and if it’s too vague, we’ll go back and ask some questions.
Do you make a distinction between religious and philosophical views?
We do have to be careful that we’re not basing it just on a personal belief. But it doesn’t have to be an organized religion either. There is some gray area. But yes, you do have to throw out the “It’s against my personal beliefs” or anything that seems to stem from a political framework.
So I assume this means that the people who are looking over the requests do not need to be experts on the theology of the major religions, then?
No, no. It just goes back to the sincerity of the belief and not of the organized religion.
There are, for example, pastors out there offering letters for religious exemptions to anyone who wants one. Is that something that you are monitoring or taking into account in any way?
Yeah, some of the guidelines we are following alert you that there are things you can find online. So we are careful of that. We’re looking out for that. [We’re] asking more information when it seems like it’s too rubber-stamped. But again, it’s about that person being able to say what the nature of their belief is, and not being vague about it.
What’s been most challenging about this process?
I think the volume. For an organization of 4,000, 288 doesn’t seem like a big number. But when you’re taking them individually, the biggest challenge is just making sure that each one gets the attention that it needs to have under the protection of the law. I’ve managed this type of work for many, many years, and I’ve had maybe a handful of religious accommodation requests. I don’t know that we knew what to expect.
Would you say you have learned anything from this experience?
I think what the team has learned is that there are pretty broad variables. You can’t just presume that because it was not well written, for example, that it’s not sincere. And we learned that that’s why it’s important to have the follow-up process. It’s not something that can easily be placed in writing. It’s not all at face value, because your employees come from different backgrounds and different perspectives. And some may just require a little more Q-and-A to be able to get you where you have enough information for a response.