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September 17, 2021

Legitimate or 'loophole': Who decides if a religious objection to vaccination is sincere?

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    As more workers around the country are required to be vaccinated against Covid-19, thousands are seeking religious exemptions to the mandates—sometimes forcing employers to determine whether an individual is inappropriately seeking a "loophole" to avoid vaccination.

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    What the law says about religious exemptions

    Under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who have "sincerely held" religious beliefs that conflict with work requirements.

    Under the provision, "religion" has a broad definition. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a religious belief does not have be formally recognized by an organized religion. Beliefs can also be new, unconventional, or "seem illogical or unreasonable to others." However, religious beliefs cannot be based solely on political or social beliefs.

    In the case of Covid-19 vaccines, major religious denominations, institutions, and traditions have been "essentially unanimous" in their support of Covid-19 vaccinations, according to the New York Times.

    Although some Roman Catholic leaders in the United States have derided the vaccines for their use of cell lines derived from fetal tissue, the Vatican's doctrine office has said it is "morally acceptable" for Catholics to receive Covid-19 vaccines that were based on research using these types of cells. In addition, Pope Francis has said it would be "suicide" not to be vaccinated and that he has been fully vaccinated himself with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

    An Associated Press-NORC poll from August found that the majority of people who identify as religious were vaccinated against Covid-19. Specifically, the poll found that 58% of white evangelical Protestants, 72% of white mainline Protestants, 80% of Catholics, and 73% of religiously unaffiliated Americans said they had been vaccinated. Seventy percent of nonwhite Protestants, including 70% of Black Protestants, also said they had been vaccinated.

    Thousands seek religious exemptions for vaccine mandates

    Despite support for vaccinations from religious institutions, some individuals have cited religious objections against Covid-19 vaccination, AP/Modern Healthcare reports.

    For instance, around 2,600 employees at the Los Angeles Police Department have cited religious objections in seeking to avoid required Covid-19 vaccination, and thousands of state workers in Washington state are seeking similar exemptions.

    Mat Staver, the founder and chair of Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal organization, said his group has received more than 20,000 queries on religious exemptions in the past few weeks.

    According to AP/Modern Healthcare, several public officials, physicians, and community leaders have also offered people assistance in pursuing religious exemptions against Covid-19 vaccine mandates.

    For example, Jackson Lahmeyer, a pastor from Sheridan Church in Tulsa, Okla., is offering a "religious exemption" form on his church's website that people can download. Anyone interested in a religious exemption can download the form and get it signed by a religious leader, or Lahmeyer will sign the form himself if they join and donate to his church.

    According to Lahmeyer, more than 35,000 people have downloaded the form in just three days.

    "We're not anti-vaxxers," he said. "We're just pro-freedom. A lot of these people who have signed ... have already taken the vaccine. They just don't think it's right that somebody else should be forced or lose their job."

    According to the Times, research suggests that some vaccine skeptics' resistance is not due to formal religious teachings but instead opinions from media and conversations with like-minded family members and friends.

    "People who have already made up their minds are now looking for ways to continue to exempt themselves from the Covid vaccine," Joshua Williams, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, said.

    Before the pandemic, Williams researched school vaccination requirements and found evidence that some objections to vaccines that are cited as religious may be based on personal, secular beliefs.

    For example, after Vermont removed exemptions for vaccinations based on nonreligious personal beliefs in 2016, the proportion of kindergarten students with a religious exemption sharply increased from 0.5% to 3.7%.

    Employers struggle to navigate religious exemption requests

    According to the Times, businesses have already spent the past 18 months navigating contentious pandemic challenges, including shutting down workplaces, requiring masks, and for some, returning to in-person work.

    Now, the Times reports, employers with vaccine mandates must distinguish between objections that are primarily secular and those based on religious beliefs—a situation that may become increasingly fraught as religious liberty is pitted against employers' health and safety concerns.

    Some employers have already taken a hard line on these exemptions, AP/Modern Healthcare reports. United Airlines last week told employees who obtain religious exemptions that they will be put on unpaid leave until new coronavirus testing procedures are in place. And New York lawmakers attempted to make the vaccine mandatory for all medical workers without religious exemptions before a federal judge blocked the state from enforcing the rule.

    Other employers still have questions.

    "How much can we ask? How far can we push? Do we have to accommodate this? Those are the questions employers are trying to figure out," Barbara Holland, an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, said. And, she added, "How do I tease out who's not telling the truth?" (AP/Modern Healthcare, 9/15; Bailey, Washington Post, 9/15; Graham, New York Times, 9/15)

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