I am Looking for Assistance Filing a Religious Exemption to College or University's Vaccine Mandate.

 

 

Requesting a Religious Exemption at

Your College or University

by Christian, civil trial attorney, RL Johnson


Christian college students considering requesting an accommodation due to their refusal to receive the COVID 19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious belief must know their legal rights. Indeed, knowledge of a student's legal rights is a prerequisite to filing a complaint in court as a result of having been denied admission to or not permitted to continue in attendance at a public college by reason of a student's sincerely held religious beliefs. While I get into the weeds quite a bit here, having consulted and advised many people on this issue, I have found getting into the weeds unavoidable.


Many Christian students object on religious grounds to the COVID-19 vaccine. Thus, what follows applies if you are seeking a vaccine exemption upon application to or continued attendance at a "public school" or a "public college"

  • "’Public school’" means any elementary or secondary educational institution, and

  • "’public college’" means

  • any institution of higher education or any technical or vocational school above the secondary school level operated by

  • a State,

  • subdivision of a State, or

  • governmental agency within a State, or

  • operated mostly from or through the use of governmental funds

  • or property, or funds or property derived from a governmental source.”

42 USC §2000c(c).


Your right to request an exemption flows from Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which were enacted to desegregate public schools.[1]


Title IV prohibits discrimination based on religion in government funded educational institutions. Additionally, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects students of any religion from discrimination based on a student's actual or perceived shared ancestry, ethnic characteristics, citizenship, or residency in a country with a distinct religion.


The first step in the exemption process is to read the school’s religious (i.e., Title IV and VI) policies, which should contain language to the effect that a sincerely held religious belief is a belief that can be theistic, moral, and/or ethical as to what is right and wrong. Accordingly, most universities [should] now have a form(s) for this purpose that permit students to request an exemption in writing.


Note well that, in order to determine if your belief is sincerely held, the school can (among other things) require you to:

  • Provide statements and explanations discussing the nature and tenets of your asserted beliefs and information about when, where, and how you follow your practice or beliefs;

  • Provide written religious materials describing your religious belief or practice; moreover,

While there is no such provision in Title IV or VI, courts have endorsed a cooperative information-sharing process between employer and employee for religious accommodation requests, similar to the “interactive process” used for disability accommodation requests under the ADA. See Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60, 69 (1986) (explaining that “bilateral cooperation is appropriate in the search for an acceptable reconciliation of the needs of the employee’s religion and the exigencies of the employer’s business.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)); see also Thomas v. Nat’l Ass’n of Letter Carriers, 225 F.3d 1149, 1155 n.5 (10th Cir. 2000) (stating that “[t]he [ADA] ‘interactive process’ rationale is equally applicable to the obligation to offer a reasonable accommodation to an individual whose religious beliefs conflict with an employment requirement”).”


Note also that you will likely be required to comply with predetermined protocols for unvaccinated individuals, which can include frequent COVID-19 testing and/or proof of a negative test.


So, what happens if the school refuses to grant your request for an exemption?


If you reasonably believe that your school has violated your civil rights Title IV authorizes both a private right of action [42 USC §2000c–8] or for the Attorney General [42 USC §2000c–6] to address certain equal protection violations based on religion in public schools and institutions of higher education.


If the refusal is from a public school, your complaint should contain a statement to the effect that the school board is depriving children of the equal protection of the laws.


At the college level, your complaint must state that you have been denied admission or not permitted to continue attending a public college by reason of your sincerely held religious belief, observance, or practice.


However, before filing a lawsuit in a state or federal court, generally you must exhaust administrative remedies …


  1. This means filing your complaint within 180 days of the last act of discrimination with the Office of Civil Rights. If your complaint involves matters that occurred longer ago than this, you will probably have to request a waiver where you will be asked to show good cause why you did not file your complaint within the 180-day period.

  2. Also, I strongly recommend that before filing a lawsuit in court under Title IV you find out about the institution’s grievance process and use that process to resolve your complaint. However, you are not required by law to use the institutional grievance process before filing a complaint with OCR. However, if you use an institutional grievance process and also chooses to file the complaint with OCR, the complaint must be filed with OCR within 60 days after completion of the institutional grievance process.

  3. The Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division (i.e., the OCR) retains final authority to determine whether a civil rights investigation should be opened, and may delegate its authority to file suit to the Educational Opportunities Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is charged with ensuring that all persons regardless of their religion are provided equal educational opportunities. The Section's work includes addressing discrimination and harassment on the basis of religion and spans all religious affiliations. See list of DOJ cases.[i]

You may file a complaint with OCR using OCR’s electronic complaint form at the OCR’s website. Here is the link.

http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/complaintintro.html


Finally, a prevailing party in a Title IV[ii] case is generally entitled to reasonable attorney fees under 42 USC §2000e-5(k).[iii]


On the other hand, attorney fees are only awarded to a prevailing school-defendant when the court finds that the plaintiff’s claims were frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. Christiansburg Garment Co v EEOC, 434 US 412 (1978).


ENDNOTES

[1] The following laws also prohibit discrimination in public schools and colleges on the basis of race, color, national origin, and, under some circumstances, on the basis of sex or religion.

[i] List of DOJ education cases:

[ii] “In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1981a, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, title IX of Public Law 92–318 [20 U.S.C. 1681 et seq.], the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 [42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.], the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 [42 U.S.C. 2000cc et seq.], title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [42 U.S.C. 2000d et seq.], or section 12361 of title 34, the court, in its discretion, may allowthe prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity such officer shall not be held liable for any costs, including attorney's fees, unless such action was clearly in excess of such officer's jurisdiction.” 42 USC §1988(b)

[iii] Prevailing parties in 42 USC §1981 and §1983 cases may petition for attorney fees under 42 USC 1988


 

Helpful Links:

• Christian Legal Society

https://www.christianlegalsociety.org

• The Library of Congress’ website:

https://www.loc.gov/law/help/guide/states.php

• Civil Pro Se Forms

https://www.uscourts.gov/forms/civil-pro-se-forms

• Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

https://www.uscourts.gov/rules-policies/current-rules-practice-procedure/federal-rules-civil-procedure

• Public Access to Court Electronic Records (“PACER”) system

http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/


 

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for legal advice and is not customized to your particular needs. Before undertaking self-representation, we urge you to consult with an attorney licensed to practice in your state.