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Washington guidelines on vaccine mandate for school workers urge caution in questioning religious exemptions

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The state has released new guidelines that will likely affect many school employee COVID-19 vaccine exemption requests, especially those based on religion.

Five days after making vaccines mandatory for all teachers and staff, the state superintendent’s office came out Monday night with clarification on religious exemptions.

Approximately 363,000 employees are covered by the vaccination mandate, although it is not known how many within this group are already vaccinated.

Of the 155,000 of that number who are educators, principals or staff, schools superintendent Chris Reykdal said last week that about 70% were already vaccinated.

That leaves almost 50,000 who are not. The clarifications were eagerly awaited by school districts across the state.

The document will surely add to the burden on human resource managers seeking to determine the depth and sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs. It also appears to place a high burden of proof on districts that challenge these beliefs when processing exemptions.

The guidelines were developed in consultation with the Washington state attorney general’s office and contain several caveats for school districts when considering individual applications.

The document entitled “Guidance for Employers on the Assessment of Religious Accommodation Requests” is four pages long.

However, it gets to the point in the third paragraph, which urges school districts to proceed with caution in questioning an employee’s religious beliefs.

He begins: “Federal religious accommodation guidelines encourage employers to assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on an honest belief in a religion, unless the employer has a valid reason and objective of interviewing the employee. The employer must consider the request on its own merits, initiate a discussion with the employee about a possible accommodation and assess whether an accommodation is possible.

In its second paragraph, the document offers a broad definition of religion recognized by state and federal laws: “It includes traditional and organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. The law includes religious beliefs that are new, unusual, not part of a formal church or sect, individualistic, or only held by a small number of people.

The second paragraph ends with more ambiguity: “Moral or ethical beliefs about what is right and wrong, which are sincerely supported by the force of traditional religious views, may meet the definition of a sincere religious belief.

However, school districts will be allowed to ask objective and general questions. In addition, the employer “is not required to accept a high level statement of religious observance that does not provide any details; an employer may ask questions about the specific belief, principle or observance that conflicts with the vaccination requirement.

The vaccination mandate does not apply to students, although students and staff in Kindergarten to Grade 12 are required to wear masks when the school year begins next month.

Washington’s vaccine mandate also applies to most child care and early learning providers who care for children in multiple households. Tribal schools are not included, although Inslee strongly encouraged them to follow suit. Private K-12 schools are included in the mandate, but the Catholic Diocese of Spokane has indicated it will not meet the state’s mandate to vaccinate its school employees.

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