Judging a “sincerely supported” religious belief is difficult for employers who demand vaccines

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A person receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles in April. // Getty Images, Mario Tama

Updated October 4, 2021, 12:51 p.m. ET

Brittany Watson worked as a nurse at a hospital in Winchester, Va. – until her employer, Valley Health, announced that all staff needed to be vaccinated.

Watson says there are several reasons she didn’t get the jab. The first is that she had COVID-19 in November, so she thinks she has some natural immunity. And she’s also skeptical of any carrots that have been hung – things like college scholarships, shotguns, fishing licenses – to urge West Virginia like her to get vaccinated.

“I might have had it if it wasn’t so pushed to get it,” Watson says. “And then they mandate it. Now you tell me what to do. I worked 18 months during the pandemic, and now I’m not allowed to work there if I don’t have a vaccine.”

Whether an employer grants a religious exemption to a vaccination requirement is usually based on a judgment of the employee’s sincere religious belief – and whether the accommodation constitutes undue hardship on the employer, or would pose a threat. direct to the health and safety of others.

Watson organized a picket line outside Winchester Medical Center to protest the Valley Health mandate. She also asked for a religious exemption, signed by her pastor.

“My explanation was that ‘Human life is sacred. The Bible tells you that your body is a temple. The vaccine is made from aborted fetuses. The mandate directly affects my religious beliefs.’ And that’s it, ”she said.

The vaccines themselves do not contain any fetal cells. Fetal cell lines have been used in vaccine development, as they typically are in the development of new pharmaceuticals.

Valley Health approved her religious exemption, but Watson decided to seek employment elsewhere.

Watson’s girlfriend Katherine Hart also had her religious exemption approved by Valley Health. After going on strike for three weeks, Hart returned to her job as a nurse practitioner at an emergency care center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

“I went back to work and literally nothing has changed. I see the same patients,” says Hart. “I do COVID tests. I see COVID patients every day. I wear my same masks, I follow the same rules. Literally nothing has changed, which makes me even more suspicious, because if I were a such a threat to society, you would think they should change the rules and make me do something differently. ”

Hart and Watson say other people they know have had their exemption requests turned down.

Valley Health last month terminated the employment of 72 employees, out of a workforce of more than 6,000, due to non-compliance with its vaccine mandate. The health system claims that more than 95% of its employees are now vaccinated, of which 5% are exempt for religious or medical reasons.

No major religion has opposed COVID-19 vaccines. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and the Catholic Church have all issued statements saying their religion does not prohibit members from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. The Pope said getting the vaccine was “an act of love”.

The assessment of requests for religious exemptions is difficult

“Employers are inundated with these demands [for religious exemptions], and must assess them in large numbers, ”says Alana Genderson, lawyer specializing in labor and employment law at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Because employers are reluctant to engage in assessing questions of religion and personal beliefs, Genderson says that “employers feel more comfortable judging undue hardship and whether there is an accommodation where the person does not. would not be a direct threat to others “.

The idea of ​​evaluating sincerity is particularly thorny.

“Sincerity is like what’s true in your heart. There is no way to judge this as religious or not, or as sincere or not,” says Kira Ganga Kieffer, doctoral student in religious studies at Boston University. , where she writes a book on vaccine skepticism in America.

But there is a legal basis for employers to assess sincere religious beliefs.

According to Genderson, according to federal guidelines and previous court rulings, employers may consider several factors when assessing the sincerity of a religious belief.

“These factors can include whether the employee’s behavior is inconsistent with the professed belief; accommodation constitutes a desirable advantage which may be sought for secular reasons; the timing of the request makes him suspect; or the employer has an objective reason to believe that the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons, ”she explains.

Employers can ask the employee for additional information, such as asking if they are taking other drugs that also used fetal cells in their development, such as Tylenol or Motrin.

A tension between religious freedom and public security

When Kieffer began her research, she was originally looking at measles outbreaks in places where parents chose not to get the vaccine at school.

In those cases, she said, “It was political, yes, but it wasn’t a red versus blue issue. It wasn’t a Republican versus Democrat issue. There were people on both sides with measles. . ”

But the politicization of this virus has changed that.

“The people who are the most angry now or who oppose the most now are kind of a new cohort, I would say, who are much more traditionally politically motivated,” Kieffer said.

The stakes could not be higher. As religious exemptions are now demanded en masse, their use raises concerns that they pose a serious risk to public health.

“We firmly believe that religious freedom should not be licensed to harm others,” said Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She says it’s problematic that public safety rests on hard-to-assess issues of individual religious sincerity.

“What this has created is a situation where we actually see herd immunity threatened and public safety threatened, where religious exemptions are kind of so voluminously claimed,” Laser said.

“What we need to do is draw a line where religious freedom would endanger lives and harm others,” she said. “So we don’t even have to come up with that sincerity calculation.”

Some see mandates as the wrong approach

“I actually think a warrant is a blunt instrument at this point in the game, because everything is so new,” says Jason McKnight, senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Kinston, North Carolina.

He himself is vaccinated and church members have sought advice on how to approach the mandates.

“Obviously the scriptures don’t talk about vaccines,” he laughs. “So how do we seek principles and use wisdom to apply them correctly, how does someone need to live in his conscience, but not in a stupid way?”

He says vaccination issues are something some people struggle with, among many other issues in their lives. He hears concerns that the vaccines are still too new, too untested – but people might not have a choice of getting the vaccine if they want to keep their jobs.

McKnight says if a member asked for his signature on a religious exemption, he thinks he would sign it.

“Part of my role is to support the underdog. That’s what Jesus did,” he said. “And that is why we are trying to figure out how to bring Afghan refugees here, why we are trying to help migrant workers. Nurses who are going to lose their jobs because they are just not ready to be vaccinated seems right. a little harsh right now in a civilized world. ”

Others believe resistance to vaccination is politically motivated

Randall Balmer grew up in the Evangelical Church and is now a Dartmouth Religious Professor and Episcopal Priest.

He suspects that much of the opposition to vaccines is politically motivated.

“I have to believe that something else is at work here, that there is some kind of underlying ideology that says, I don’t know, ‘We don’t want the Biden administration to succeed in overcome this public health crisis’ “he says.
“There is certainly no theological basis for this kind of opposition.”

And he believes many churches could render greater public service during the pandemic, noting that they enjoy tax-exempt status.

Balmer says that “a reasonable approach to this serious public health crisis would be for these churches, these religious organizations to say, ‘Look, we understand the public has been subsidizing us for a long time. In return, we believe that we have an obligation of civic responsibility, and we are ready to assume that obligation not only to vaccinate ourselves, but to vaccinate others. ”

“And I even dare say that maybe that’s what Jesus would do in a similar situation,” he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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