What constitutes honest religious belief for purposes of the vaccine mandate?
In Northern California, the pastor of a mega-church distributes religious dispensation forms to the faithful. A New Mexico state senator will “help you craft a religious exemption” by pointing to the decades-old use of aborted fetal cells in the development of some vaccines. And one Texas-based evangelist offers exemption letters to anyone — for a suggested “donation” starting at $25.
With workplace vaccination mandates in the offing, 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 Christian Science Church, whose adherents rely heavily on prayer rather than medicine, does not impose an official policy. He advises “respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination.”
And if a person claims private religious beliefs prohibit vaccinations, that defense is unlikely to hold water if challenged, legal experts say. Although individual members of the clergy have ridden the anti-vaccine bandwagon, they have no obvious justification in religious texts for their positions. Many seem willing to accommodate people who reject vaccination for another reason.
Yet the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission grants wide room for maneuver to what constitutes sincere religious belief. As a result, some experts predict that most employers and administrators won’t want to challenge such objections from their employees.
“I have a feeling few people will want to fight over this,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Food and Drug Administration full endorsement of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on August 23 could move things forward. Many government agencies, health care providers, colleges, and the military were waiting for the move before applying the warrants.
In Dallas-Fort Worth, major health systems were the first companies to implement mandates, giving workers until the end of this month to get vaccinated. The exemption issue is already a battleground, with Liberty Counsel threatening to sue the Methodist health system for denying religious exemptions to at least four workers.
California, which removal of non-medical exemptions for childhood vaccinations in 2015, paved the way for COVID vaccination mandates. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s July 26 order for state employees and healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated or tested weekly was the first of its kind, as was a similar declaration on August 11 for all teachers and staff in public and private schools. California State University’s 23-campus system joined UC in requiring vaccinations for all students and staff, and companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter announced mandatory proof of employee vaccinations for those returning to their offices.
The University of California is requiring proof of vaccinations for all staff and students at its 10 campuses, a move that potentially affects half a million people. But like many other businesses, it make room for those who wish to request an exemption “for medical, disability or religious reasons”, adding that the law requires it.
Nothing in history suggests that large numbers of students or staff will seek such a solution – but then, no previous conversation about vaccines has been so openly politicized like the one around COVID.
“This country is going for mandates. It’s just. All other alternatives have been tried,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco. “This phrase, ‘religious exemption’, is very important. But it’s going to be hard enough in the current climate — in a mass health crisis, with a working vaccine in place — to let go of such religious claims. »
Indeed, while anti-vaccine pop-up churches have long offered ways for reluctant parents to exempt their children from vaccines, these days churches, internet-based religious businesses and others seem to be offering wholesale COVID vaccination exemptions.
Dr. Gregg Schmedes, a Republican senator and otolaryngologist from New Mexico, used an August 19 Facebook post to direct healthcare workers ‘with a religious belief that abortion is immoral’ to a site that attempts to catalog the use of cells from aborted fetuses to test or produce various COVID vaccines. A vaccine distributed in the United States, the Johnson & Johnson product, is made from a cell culture derived in part from retinal cells from an aborted fetus in 1985.
Still, the Vatican has deemed it “morally acceptable” to get a COVID shot. In reality, Pope Francis said it is “the moral choice because it is about your life but also the life 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 Kaiser Health News via email.
In the town of Rocklin, in the Sacramento, California area, a church that openly challenged Newsom’s last year’s COVID shutdown orders have been distributed hundreds of exemption letters. Greg Fairrington, pastor of Destiny Christian Church, told attendees at a church service: “Nobody should be able to demand that you take a shot or lose your job. It’s just not right 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 an isolated part of the office, or from a forward-facing position to a position that involves less interpersonal contact. But the employer is not required to do anything that results in undue hardship or more than “de minimis” cost.
As for the objection itself, the opinion of the commission is vague. Employers “should normally assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on an honest religious belief,” the EEOC states. Employers have the right to request supporting documentation, but employees’ religious beliefs should not depend on any specific or organized faith.
The distinction between religion and ideology is blurring among those asking for exemptions. In Turlock, California, a preschool teacher received an exemption letter from her pastor, who offered the documents to those who felt that getting vaccinated was “morally compromising”.
Asked by KHN via direct message why she asked for the exemption, the woman said she didn’t feel comfortable being vaccinated because of “what’s in the vaccine and then added, “Personally, I’m over ‘COVID’ and the control the government is trying to put on us!” Like other waiver seekers, even those who posted in anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, she worried that other people would know she was seeking a waiver.
A surgical technician working at Dignity Health, who ordered his employees be fully vaccinated before Nov. 1, said she was awaiting a response from the company’s human resources department regarding her religious exemption request. She freely explained the reasons for her candidacy by referencing two passages from the Bible and listing the ingredients of the vaccine that she said are “harmful to the human body”. But she didn’t want anyone to know that she had applied for the religious exemption.
A state’s right to require vaccination has been a well-established law since 1905 Supreme Court decision which confirmed compulsory vaccination against smallpox in Massachusetts. Legal experts claim that this right has been upheld many times, including in a 1990 Supreme Court decision that actions motivated by religion are not isolated from laws, unless a law designates religion as disadvantaged treatment. In August, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett declined, without comment, a challenge to Indiana University order that all students, staff and faculty be vaccinated.
“Under current law, it is clear that no religious exemption is required,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, told KHN.
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from looking for one.