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What really counts as a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine? Employers are trying to figure it out

Syringes are filled with 0.5 ml of Moderna vaccine.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – Questions surrounding religious exemptions are pressing for those who don’t want to be vaccinated.

But many large organized religions are not opposed to vaccines.

This collision of vaccine mandates, religion and personal choice could leave the issue up to individual employers – whether it be government agencies, hospitals or private businesses – to determine if a worker’s belief qualifies them to skip a COVID-19 shot.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation declared that those who have a medical accommodation or “a sincerely held religious belief” can opt out of the vaccine. Thousands of state workers hope to make use of that escape clause.

More than 6% of state workers have filed for religious exemptions, according to initial data released Tuesday. Another 1.5% have requested a medical exemption.

According to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism have no prohibition on vaccines. Some Christian denominations have an objection to vaccines, one of the most well-known being Christian Scientists.

But many religious leaders have actually encouraged their members to get the COVID-19 shot.

Pope Francis has urged Catholics to receive the vaccine. Leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement last month urging its members to get the vaccine.

Christian Scientists often opt out of vaccines, as many believe prayer can cure disease. Lance Matteson, a spokesperson for the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Washington, wrote in an email that choosing not to get vaccinated is “a conscientious choice to seek … help through spiritual means.”

While the church urges members to make their own choices regarding vaccination, a statement from its board of directors also said it recognizes the importance of cooperating with measures considered necessary by public health officials.

“And most of all, we hope that our collective care and effort can promote public health and healing to all affected by disease and contagion around the world,” the statement reads.

Matteson said he knows some church members who have chosen to get vaccinated and some who have not. The church does not want any members to feel pressure either way, he said.

Matteson said the church has always appreciated the availability of religious accommodations from vaccine requirements.

“But that privilege was never intended to pit the conscientious practice of Christian Scientists as a religious minority against the well-being of society at large,” he wrote.

Getting those who are religious and hesitant of the vaccine may take the work of religious leaders and groups, a survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core showed.

The survey found Jewish Americans are the most likely to be accepting of the vaccine, with 85% of respondents at the time saying they accept the vaccines. Hispanic and white Catholics, other non-Christians, other Christians, religiously affiliated and white mainline Protestants all had more than 70% of respondents approve of the vaccine. White evangelical Protestants are the least likely to accept the vaccine with 24% saying they would not get vaccinated.

The survey, which reported results in both March and June, found that faith-based approaches to vaccine hesitancy, such as encouragement from religious leaders or religious groups giving out information, had a significant influence on increasing vaccine acceptance.

Where religious freedom fits into exemptions, mandates

As more mandates come out, so do the questions of legality, specifically on violating religious freedom.

If any cases are brought to state or federal court, determining the legality of mandates and exemption responses will be based on numerous factors, said Shaakirrah Sanders, a University of Idaho law professor.

Religious freedom comes from two places in the First Amendment: the establishment clause, which says the government cannot establish a religion or programs that exclude religions, and the exercise clause, which says the government can’t do anything to prevent free exercise of religion.

Exemptions to certain laws because of religion have been established both by statute and by case law from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“But you don’t get an exemption in every case,” Sanders said.

On vaccine mandates, the government may argue they’re not forcing anyone to change their religious beliefs, only forcing them to change their behavior, Sanders said.

For any lawsuits that come out of these mandates, the court will likely take into account what alternatives to vaccine the mandate offers, such as testing, an individual’s consistency on vaccines; whether their specific job can be accommodated in any way and the state of emergency brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If a state or federal mandate offers a testing option instead of receiving the vaccine, for example, a court may decide that it does not violate a person’s religious freedom because there are options, Sanders said.

The vaccine mandates in Washington state do not offer a testing option instead of vaccination. That could be a factor that turns a particular case, Sanders said.

The court may then have to look for which industries are subject to the mandate and if there are other options for a worker to stay employed, such as working from home.

“It’s hard to know definitively how a court will rule,” she said.

Then, it may come down to the individual’s own beliefs.

Under current law, individuals looking to get religious exemptions don’t need to be a part of organized religion, Sanders said, and they don’t have to believe in all tenets of that religion.

So, despite numerous religious leaders calling on their members to get vaccinated, those who refuse due to religious reasons can still do so as long as it is “sincerely held.”

However, anyone who brings a case to court will likely have to prove that they are opposed to all vaccines and not just the COVID-19 vaccine, Sanders said. If they only object to one, “that could present problems for them.”

Another factor could be the COVID-19 pandemic itself.

In the context of the First Amendment, there is no “emergency exemption,” Sanders said. However, the scope of those freedoms could be hindered, such as by not limiting the number of people allowed in a church at one time due to social distancing.

The state of the economy might play a role in these decisions as well, especially if there are industries still struggling to get workers, Sanders said.

“We’ve seen their inability to have any predictability on how a case will turn,” Sanders said. “That’s risky for people bringing a claim, and it’s also risky for the government making a regulation.”

One thing that is predictable, however, is the timing of these cases.

Federal and state courts are still backed up, Sanders said, and no one knows how long the pandemic will continue. If the pandemic eases by the end of next spring, courts may find the cases on mandates moot.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.