When Exemptions Discriminate: Unlawfully Narrow Religious Exemptions to Vaccination Mandates by Private Colleges and Universities

39 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2021 Last revised: 18 May 2022

See all articles by Ronald J. Colombo

Ronald J. Colombo

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law

Date Written: July 26, 2021


Numerous colleges and universities have imposed COVID-19 vaccination mandates upon their students. Most of these mandates have been accompanied by the purported recognition of medical and religious exemptions. With regard to religious exemptions, some are unjustly discriminatory. Most notably, they give preference to students who are members of organized religions over students who are not. And even facially neutral exemptions can be administered in an unjustly discriminatory way by, for example, giving preference to one set of religious denominations over another, or by engaging in “religious profiling” (whereby students of a particular denomination are held completely beholden to the beliefs of that denomination (as ascertained by the school’s administration), despite their own sincere and genuine religious beliefs to the contrary).

Students attending public colleges and universities have federal constitutional and statutory protections against such discrimination; students attending private institutions do not. Rather, students attending private colleges and universities are at the mercy of state law and afforded only those protections against discrimination recognized by the state in which their institution is located.

Although the research and insights presented herein should be applicable, in whole or in part, to any state with antidiscrimination laws protecting college students, this paper’s focus will be on New York’s Human Rights Law. It will demonstrate the ways in which religious exemptions can and do violate the law by illegally discriminating against students upon the basis of religion. It will examine one particularly ill-advised and problematic policy (Hofstra University’s) and showcase one that comports with best practices (that of Syracuse University’s).

For the present, there exists significant uncertainly regarding the promulgation of COVID-19 vaccination mandates. Private vaccination mandates may or may not be lawful, and religious exemptions thereto may or may not be required. But what is clear, however, is that in New York, and most likely in any other state where students are protected against discrimination, a religious exemption to a private college or university vaccination mandate must be nondiscriminatory.

Keywords: COVID, Exemptions, Religion, Discrimination, Religious discrimination, Religious exemptions, Vaccination mandates

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K19, K30, K39, Z12, I20, I29

Suggested Citation

Colombo, Ronald J., When Exemptions Discriminate: Unlawfully Narrow Religious Exemptions to Vaccination Mandates by Private Colleges and Universities (July 26, 2021). Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2021-10, New England Law Review, Vol. 44, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3893802 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3893802

Ronald J. Colombo (Contact Author)

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law ( email )

121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.hofstra.edu/Academics/Law/index_Law.cfm

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