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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington’s vaccine mandate guidelines for school workers advocate caution in questioning religious exemptions

Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, left, listens as Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference, on Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia. School districts in Washington state must process requests for a religious exemption to the governor's COVID-19 vaccine mandate through their human resources departments, according to updated guidance from Olympia.   (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The state has released new guidance that will probably affect many school employee COVID-19 vaccine exemption requests, particularly those based on religion.

Five days after mandating vaccines for all teachers and staff, the state superintendent’s office came out Monday night with clarifications around religious exemptions.

About 363,000 employees are covered under the vaccine mandate, though it’s unclear how many within that group already are vaccinated.

Of the 155,000 from that numbers who are educators, school leaders or staff, Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal said last week that about 70% already are vaccinated.

That leaves almost 50,000 who are not. The clarifications have been eagerly awaited by school districts throughout the state.

The document will surely add to the burdens of 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 who question those beliefs during the processing of exemptions.

The guidance was developed in consultation with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and contains several caveats for school districts as they consider individual requests.

The document, “Guidance for Employers on Evaluating 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.

It begins: “Federal guidance on religious accommodation encourages employers to presume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincere belief in a religion, unless the employer has a valid, objective reason to question the employee. The employer should review the request on its own merits, initiate discussion with the employee about possible accommodation, and assess whether accommodation is possible.”

In its second paragraph, the document offers a broad definition of religion recognized under state and federal law: “It includes traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The law includes religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, 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 held with the strength of traditional religious views, may meet the definition of a sincerely held religious belief.”

However, school districts will be allowed to ask objective, general questions. Moreover, the employer “does not have to accept a high-level statement of religious observance that provides no details; an employer can ask about the specific belief, tenet, or observance that conflicts with the vaccination requirement.”

The vaccine mandate does not apply to students, though K-12 students and staff are required to wear masks when the school year starts next month.

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