A sensitive front has opened up in the nationwide battle over companies forcing vaccine mandates on their employees: religious exemptions. People and teachers pray as they protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside the Manhattan Federal Court Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez) Eduardo Munoz Avarez/AP
Companies and states prepare to challenge religious exemptions to vaccine mandates
Sarah Westwood October 13, 07:00 AM October 13, 07:00 AM
A sensitive front has opened up in the nationwide battle over companies forcing vaccine mandates on their employees: religious exemptions.
A growing number of employees facing vaccine mandates have requested exemptions based on their stated religious beliefs, forcing some employers to confront difficult questions of freedom, privacy, and safety.
Facing an upcoming deadline to get vaccinated, more than 2,600 employees of the Los Angeles Police Department said they planned to request exceptions for their religious beliefs.
Roughly 1 in 5 workers for Fire and Emergency Medical Services in Washington, D.C., requested religious exemptions from the city’s vaccine mandate, prompting Mayor Muriel Bowser to say each of their requests would “definitely be reviewed vigorously.”
Workers in industries from healthcare to sports have fought to receive religious exceptions in more limited circumstances, receiving mixed results.
Douglas Laycock, professor at University of Virginia School of Law and an expert on religious liberty law, said companies have ways to verify religious exemptions requests, although the process can be complicated.
“They can try to investigate sincerity individually, but that’s extremely difficult, especially if you’ve got large numbers of people claiming an exemption,” Laycock told the Washington Examiner.
To prevail against a person attempting to avoid vaccine requirements on religious grounds, the government has to demonstrate a “compelling interest” in the vaccine, Laycock explained.
“This is a very easy case for compelling government interest,” he said, noting the higher number of COVID-19 deaths in states with low vaccination rates versus states with high rates.
“Courts also find ways to reject claims when there is a strong incentive for insincere and nonreligious claims,” Laycock added. “If you declare yourself consciously opposed to paying taxes, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Strong resistance to vaccination among the millions of workers who have so far avoided taking the jab may lead to a rise in insincere religious exemption requests.
Some employers have gotten creative in attempting to discourage religious exemptions, with many pointing to the fact that laboratory-grown fetal cell lines were used in the development of the vaccines.
An Arkansas hospital system, Conway Regional Health System, asked the nearly four dozen of its employees who requested religious exemptions to sign a form attesting they do not and will not take a variety of common medicines also developed using fetal cell lines, such as Tylenol and Claritin.
The form, published by NPR, asked employees to verify their religious beliefs were “consistent and true” by abstaining from other medicines developed in the same way as the COVID vaccine.
Companies have a limited number of options for authenticating an employee’s religious beliefs, such as inquiring about church attendance.
But ultimately, individual businesses have discretion in whether to grant religious exemptions to their COVID vaccine requirements, Laycock said.
Some states are pushing back against religious exemption requests from workers subject to vaccine requirements.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker is reportedly working on a revision to a state law that bars public or private organizations from forcing anyone to receive “any particular form of healthcare services contrary to his or her conscience.”
“The Health Care Right of Conscience Act was never intended to allow people to avoid public health guidance during a global pandemic,” said Emily Bittner, Pritzker’s deputy chief of staff, in a statement. “The administration supports efforts to clarify the law, so it cannot be misinterpreted by fringe elements.”
The state of New York fought healthcare workers in court over religious exemptions to a vaccine requirement for all medical personnel. A judge on Tuesday sided against the state and with more than a dozen health workers who requested religious exemptions from New York’s mandate, possibly paving the way for future cases about faith-based objections to the shot.
Several high-profile rejections of religious exemption requests have highlighted the difficulty of unraveling questions about faith and public health.
Golden State Warriors player Andrew Wiggins requested a vaccine exemption from the NBA on religious grounds and had his request denied because San Francisco’s mandate has no exemptions. Wiggins will not be permitted to play home games this season with his team.
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