As more companies and states require employees to get coronavirus vaccines, some Americans are seeking a way out through religious exemptions to skirt mandates that they believe burden their beliefs.
The rules around religious exemptions for coronavirus vaccines vary widely, state by state, institution by institution. But experts on religious freedom court cases believe lawsuits will become more common as vaccine mandates become more prevalent.
With no nationally consistent way of navigating religious exemptions, some churches have offered parishioners templates to download. Other leaders, however, have said they will not provide exemptions.
Garrett Kell, a pastor at Del Ray Baptist in Alexandria, Va., said he’s been asked a few times to provide religious exemption forms, but he decided to decline since the individuals weren’t members of his church.
“I have sympathy for their situation, but I don’t know them and their motive and patterns for how they’ve viewed other vaccines,” he said.
Kell said he could see someone having legitimate issues around the vaccines, such as a family that has had a consistent pattern of declining vaccines in the past due to questions of their conscience, but he hasn’t seen any among his congregation of 600 people yet. Some pastors, he said, have forms ready to go on church letterhead, but he hasn’t created anything.
“[Religious exemptions] can be like an easy out, the guy who says, ‘I don’t think God wants me to date her.’ Maybe you just don’t want to date her,” he said. “I want to steer people away from using God’s name as an excuse.”
Most people do not necessarily need a letter from clergy to claim a religious exemption, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. However, sometimes a letter can bolster someone’s request for an exemption. The University of Maryland, for example, asks for the name of a spiritual leader on its exemption form.
Even though few organized religions have taken theological stands against vaccination, an employee still can usually claim a religious exemption based on his or her beliefs that doesn’t have to follow an organized religion, Reiss said.
But religious exemptions for coronavirus vaccines are just starting to be tested in courts. A federal district court ruled last week in favor of the University of Massachusetts over the school’s denial of a student’s religious exemption request. An administrator had concluded, based on his research, that a coronavirus vaccine would not violate the tenants of the student’s Catholic faith, despite her claim. He cited a statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that the vaccines were “morally justified.” Reiss expects that case to be appealed.
Reiss said she sees more and more websites popping up that coach people on how to obtain religious exemptions.
“People are being taught how to game the system,” she said. “One of the things that is going to happen is the people who are sincere, who are rare but real, will suffer if there’s a clampdown on sincerity.”
American appear divided on the question of whether adults should be able to get a religious exemption from coronavirus vaccines. A June poll found that 52% favored allowing people to refuse the vaccines based on religious beliefs while 46% opposed it, according to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute.
The polling firm also found 42% who favored allowing children to attend public school without required vaccines if getting them violated their parents’ or their religious beliefs, while 57% opposed the same question.
Religious exemptions cases are generally broken into two categories: employer-imposed mandates, where under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers are supposed to make reasonable efforts to accommodate employees with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The other category includes government-imposed mandates, such as public hospital workers and military personnel, which can raise First Amendment questions.
Hillel Y. Levin, a professor at University of Georgia School of Law, expects the U.S. courts to take religious exemption cases seriously, and says they are usually more deferential to claims of sincerity.
“Courts really struggle in rejecting claims for exemption on the grounds that they aren’t genuinely religious,” Levin said. “The nature of religious belief is that you can have belief that no one on the outside can understand.”
States have different ways of determining whether someone has a sincerely held belief. In some states, individuals need to sign a paper that states they have a religious objection to vaccines while other states require someone to explain doctrinal beliefs.
Religious objections to vaccines go back to the smallpox vaccine, said Brian Dean Abramson, adjunct professor of vaccine law at Florida International University.
“One of the early arguments was that it’s God’s will to decide who dies and who doesn’t die,” he said. “If you vaccinate, some believed, you’re thwarting divine judgment.”
However, Abramson said, as vaccines became normalized, most people who were vaccine hesitant were Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists.
“Only in recent decades have people started to say, ‘I have a religious objection,’ ” he said.
More states have been considering removing religious exemptions to measles vaccines in recent years. A few years ago, just West Virginia and Mississippi were the only states that did not allow religious exemptions. However, states like California, New York and Maine have in recent years removed their religious exemptions as well.
Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that takes on religious freedom cases, said his organization is receiving calls from people all over the country who believe their jobs are in jeopardy due to vaccine mandates, but most states have religious exemptions that usually protect them. He said the religious exemption cases his nonprofit have considered recently have been dropped because employers have given in and provided an exemption.
Shackelford said most people with religious objections fall into two categories: Some have objections to vaccines that were developed or tested through the use of abortive fetal tissue.
(Pfizer and Moderna used cell lines from aborted fetal tissue to test whether the vaccines worked but the vaccines were not developed from the same cell lines. While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used lab-replicated fetal cells during its production process, the vaccine itself does not contain any fetal cells.)
Others will cite the scripture verse, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” as a reason for why they reject the vaccine.
“With an employer, people don’t think they have rights,” he said. “In most cases, these are sincere claims, or they wouldn’t be putting their career in jeopardy.”
If judges are faced with a decision that pits a government mandate and a person’s individual religious exemption request, it might come down to what’s happening regionally, said John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. For instance, an area that has a higher percentage of total vaccinations might have less of a compelling government interest to require vaccination.
“Some of these claims are sincerely held but whether they’re shaped by religious belief or political belief could be a harder question,” Inazu said.
Mandates are new and growing, so it’s unclear how it could unfold in the courts. Charles Haynes, senior fellow for religious freedom at the Freedom Forum in Washington, said he expects conflicts to come up.
In states that have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in place, Haynes said, a case could be made that religious exemptions might be required by RFRA.
“As vaccine mandates continue to expand in schools and workplaces, there is bound to be more litigation on the issue of religious exemptions — especially in cases where no exemptions (except medical) are allowed,” he said in an email.
A recent Indiana University case declined by the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the university to keep its vaccine mandate, but Haynes thinks it might have had a different result if the school had not allowed for religious, ethical and medical exemptions. He thinks the Supreme Court would likely strike down a mandate without any religious exemptions, unless a high number of exemptions threaten public health.
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The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.