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State: Religious exemptions for teachers to Washington COVID-19 vaccine mandate should be reviewed by human resources

Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, left, listens as Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference, on Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia. School districts in Washington state must process requests for a religious exemption to the governor's COVID-19 vaccine mandate through their human resources departments, according to updated guidance from Olympia.   (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, left, listens as Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference, on Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia. School districts in Washington state must process requests for a religious exemption to the governor's COVID-19 vaccine mandate through their human resources departments, according to updated guidance from Olympia.  (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

How do your religious beliefs conflict with receiving the COVID-19 vaccine?

That’s one question teachers in the state of Washington might have to answer if they seek a religious exemption to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Religious reasons constitute one of two exceptions to the vaccine mandate, with the other being medical-related. Gov. Jay Inslee recently expanded the vaccination directive already in place for state and health care employees, requiring workers in K-12 and higher education institutions as well as most child care and early learning centers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

Religion, according to the state, is defined to include organized denominations as well as beliefs that are individualistic, new, uncommon or do not belong to a formal church or sect. Morals and ethics “held with the strength of traditional religious views” may meet state and federal standards, while social, political or economic philosophies and personal preferences do not.

For school districts, human resources departments should be responsible for reviewing and approving religious accommodation requests, according to the state.

According to guidance from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, employers should offer – but not require – employees the option to submit their religious accommodation request in writing.

“In determining whether an employee’s religious belief is sincerely held,” the guidance reads, “a limited initial inquiry could include objective, general questions, without delving too far into an employee’s reasons for a particular belief and without requiring input from an outside source, such as a formal religious leader.”

The state’s “template religious accommodation request form,” as designed for school districts, offers insight into the request process. The form asks five questions pertaining to an employee’s religious belief.

One yes-no question asks the employee whether their religious beliefs object to all medical treatment, all vaccinations or just the COVID-19 vaccine. The next question asks the applicant to describe how their religious belief conflicts with receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

“There are acceptable forms of documentation to demonstrate you have been vaccinated,” said Mike Faulk, a spokesman from Inslee’s office. “These forms just need to be shown to the employer to be accepted.”

Employees who do not comply with the vaccination requirement “will no longer continue to be employed,” Faulk said.

“More specifics on how separations will be processed are still being discussed,” he said.

As the forms require approval from an employer’s human resources representative, the governor’s order does not allow self-attested exemptions, Faulk said.

On its face, the phrasing appears to conflict with the process outlined by Thomas Daly, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane. The Spokane diocese oversees multiple Catholic schools in Eastern Washington, including in Spokane, Spokane Valley, Pasco and Walla Walla.

The diocese will acknowledge the receipt of “self-identified” religious exemptions from Catholic school employees. Spokane priests also will not sign off on religious exemption forms. Daly’s latest announcement did not mention a human resources process.

A diocese spokesman declined to comment.

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