What constitutes a sincere religious belief for the purposes of the vaccine mandate?
In Northern California, the pastor of a mega-church distributes religious exemption forms to worshipers. A New Mexico state senator “will help you formulate a religious exemption” by pointing to the decades-old use of aborted fetal cells in the development of certain vaccines. And a Texas-based evangelist is offering letters of exemption to anyone – for a suggested “donation” starting at $ 25.
With workplace vaccination warrants in sight, opponents are turning to a proven remedy to avoid a COVID-19 vaccine: the claim that vaccination interferes with religious beliefs.
No major denomination opposes vaccination. Even the Church of Christian Science, whose adherents rely heavily on prayer rather than medicine, does not impose official policy. He advises “respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the country, including those requiring vaccination.”
And if a person claims their private religious beliefs prohibit vaccination, that defense is unlikely to stand up in court if challenged, according to legal experts. Although members of the clergy have ridden the anti-vaccine train, they have no obvious justification in religious texts for their positions. Many seem willing to meet the needs of people who reject vaccination for another reason.
Yet the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gives wide latitude to what constitutes a sincere religious belief. As a result, some experts predict that most employers and administrators will not want to challenge such objections on the part of their employees.
“I have a feeling that not many people will want to fight over this topic,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, infectious disease expert and professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
The full approval by the Food and Drug Administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on August 23 could take the problem to a critical point. Many government agencies, healthcare providers, colleges and the military were waiting for this decision before implementing the warrants.
In Dallas-Fort Worth, major health systems were the first companies to implement warrants, giving workers until the end of the month to get vaccinated. The issue of the exemption is already a battleground, with Liberty Counsel threatening to sue the Methodist Health System for denying religious exemptions to at least four workers.
Religious freedom group targets mandate to vaccinate Methodist health system workers
California, which abolished non-medical exemptions for childhood immunizations in 2015, has paved the way for COVID immunization mandates. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s July 26 order that state employees and healthcare workers be fully immunized or tested weekly was the first of its kind, as was a similar August 11 statement for all teachers and staff in public and private schools. . California State University’s 23-campus system has joined with UC in requiring vaccinations for all students and staff, and companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have announced mandatory proof of vaccination employees for those who return to their offices.
The University of California is requiring proof of vaccination for all staff and students on its 10 campuses, a move that potentially affects half a million people. But like many other companies, it makes room for those who wish to apply for an exemption “for medical, disability or religious reasons”, adding that the law requires it.
Nothing in the story suggests that a large number of students or staff will seek such a solution – but then, no previous conversation about the vaccine has been as overtly politicized as the one around COVID.
“This country is going to issue warrants. It’s just. All other alternatives have been tried, ”said Dr Monica Gandhi, infectious disease expert at UC-San Francisco. “This phrase, ‘religious exemption,’ is very big. But it will be quite difficult in the current climate – in a mass health crisis, with a vaccine in place that works – to drop such religious claims. “
Indeed, while anti-vaccine pop-up churches have long offered reluctant parents ways to exempt their children from vaccines, nowadays churches, internet-based religious businesses and others seem to be offering wholesale. COVID vaccination exemptions.
Dr. Gregg Schmedes, Republican state senator and otolaryngologist from New Mexico, used a Facebook post on August 19 to direct healthcare workers “with a religious belief that abortion is immoral To a site that attempts to catalog the use of cells from abortions. fetus to test or produce various COVID vaccines. A vaccine distributed in the United States, the Johnson & Johnson product, is made from a cell culture obtained in part from retinal cells from an aborted fetus in 1985.
Still, the Vatican has deemed it “morally acceptable” to be vaccinated against COVID. In fact, Pope Francis has declared it “the moral choice because it is about your life but also about the lives of others”. In a growing number of dioceses – Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, among others – bishops have asked priests and deacons not to sign any letter that lends the church’s imprimatur to a request for religious exemption. .
Schmedes did not respond to questions posed by KHN via email.
In the town of Rocklin, in the Sacramento area, a church that openly defied Newsom’s COVID shutdown orders last year distributed hundreds of exemption letters. Greg Fairrington, pastor of the Destiny Christian Church, told attendees at a church service, “No one should be able to demand that you get vaccinated or lose your job. It’s not fair here in America.
EEOC guidelines suggest that employers make “reasonable accommodation” to those who have a sincere religious objection to a workplace rule. This may mean moving an unvaccinated employee to a secluded part of the office, or from a forward-facing position to one that involves less people-to-people contact. But the employer is not required to do anything that results in undue hardship or more than a “de minimis” cost.
As to the objection itself, the committee’s opinion is vague. Employers “should normally assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincere religious belief,” says the EEOC. Employers have the right to request supporting documentation, but employees’ religious beliefs should not depend on specific or organized faith.
The distinction between religion and ideology is blurring among those who seek exemptions. In Turlock, Calif., A preschool teacher received a letter of exemption from her pastor, who offered the documents to those who felt taking a vaccine was “morally compromising.”
Asked by KHN via a direct message why she requested the exemption, the woman said she did not feel comfortable being vaccinated because of “what’s in the vaccine,” then added, “Personally, I’m on ‘COVID’ and the control the government is trying to implement on us!” Like other exemption seekers, even those who have posted in anti-vaccine Facebook groups, she was concerned that other people would know that she had requested an exemption.
A surgical technician working at Dignity Health, who ordered her employees to be fully immunized by November 1, said she was awaiting a response from the company’s human resources department on her request for a religious exemption. She freely explained her reasons for applying, referring to two passages from the Bible and listing the ingredients of the vaccines that she said are “harmful to the human body.” But she didn’t want anyone to know that she had requested the religious exemption.
A state’s right to require vaccination is a law established since a 1905 Supreme Court ruling that upheld mandatory smallpox vaccination in Massachusetts. Legal experts say this right has been upheld on several occasions, including in a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that religiously motivated actions are not isolated from laws, unless a law designates religion for disadvantaged treatment. In August, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett refused, without comment, to challenge Indiana University’s rule that all students, staff and faculty should be vaccinated.
“Under current law, it is clear that no religious exemption is required,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC-Berkeley law school, told KHN.
Clearly, that doesn’t stop people from looking for one.
This story was written by Mark Kreidler of Kaiser Santé news, which publishes California Health Line, an editorially independent service of the California Healthcare Foundation.