The United States Constitution and the laws of the United States are secular. However, the Founding Fathers enshrined Protestant principles in both. Those principles continue living on today, particularly in the area of religious liberty. Religious rights are based upon the Protestant conception of the priesthood of all believers. According to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, every person is individually responsible to God. This is clearly set forth in Scripture. First Peter 2:9 proclaims that we are a royal priesthood. Revelation 1:5-6 tells us that Jesus has made us priests, washing us in His blood. Hebrews 4:16 commands us to come boldly before the throne of grace. None of these texts presupposes an earthly priest interposing himself between the believer and Christ. In fact, Christ warns against this arrangement in Matthew 23:9, where He says, “call no man father.”
Today, religious liberty in the workplace is governed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which continues the Protestant conception of religious freedom. Congress has delegated the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC has distilled the judiciary’s interpretation of the right to personal religious beliefs in 29 C.F.R 1605.1. The code section states the following regarding sincerely held religious beliefs, “… The fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs or the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee or prospective employee.” From this, it is clear that any statement by a clergyman will not be needed. The courts have unanimously upheld this interpretation of the law.
The EEOC has made specific guidance regarding COVID-19 vaccines. According to their webpage entitled “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws,” paragraph K.12 states in part, “Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship.” And, “that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”
In summary, EEOC states if the employer knows of an employee’s religious objection, then the employer must make a reasonable accommodation if possible. There is no room in the law for requiring a pastoral letter. Case law says that the employer has the right to inquire further as to what the basis of the objection is, but only if a claim is absurd, unclear, or there are contrary facts present, usually because the employee makes a foolish statement like, “I don’t really believe this, but I’m saying it anyway,” or the claim is an obvious parody of religion. If the request for religious accommodation appears sincere on its face, no further inquiry should be made, and the process of reasonable accommodation should be started.
Certainly, in many contexts, a letter from a pastor attesting to the sincerity of the employee’s belief would be nice. However, in the present situation where no denomination has supported vaccine exemptions and many denominations have made statements urging their members to receive the vaccine, any statement of religious affiliation just complicates the case. At this time, it is advisable to merely state one’s religion as merely a Bible-believing Christian.
If a pastor wishes to write a letter on behalf of a member who may be struggling to make a religious claim, it is advisable that the pastor stress that he is attesting to the member’s personally held beliefs, and not the beliefs of his denomination.