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Religious exemptions pose new challenges to COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Jean Hopfensperger, Star Tribune on

Published in Religious News

Religious exemptions are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religious beliefs or moral convictions. It requires employers to accommodate someone's "sincerely held" religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would create undue hardship on the employer.

Individuals seeking exemptions typically provide written explanation to their employer about why the vaccine violates their religious convictions, and provide any other documentation required. Human services staff, at workplaces ranging from airlines to health care facilities to restaurants, review the requests and determine validity.

But their decisions are increasingly challenged. For example, nearly 200 Minnesota health care workers last month filed a federal lawsuit to stop enforcement of their employers' vaccine mandates. A federal judge denied the request for an injunction this week, in part because nearly all had received exemption, and most for religious exemptions.

In another decision last week, a federal judge ruled that New York state must allow employers to grant religious exemptions to its vaccine mandate for health care workers while a lawsuit challenging them makes it way through court. Conversely a federal judge ruled that Maine could prohibit religious exemptions for its health care workers.

Determining the scope and use of religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines in Minnesota and the nation is difficult, as there is no central authority that oversees them or monitors the requests. Neither the Minnesota Department of Health nor the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce tracks such data.

There is a state health department process and form for contesting school and child care immunization laws, but it doesn't apply to COVID-19 vaccines because they weren't included when the law was written, said health department spokesman Scott Smith.

 

The archdiocese — representing the largest single faith tradition in Minnesota — doesn't track exemptions, but acknowledges it has been receiving inquires from clergy about how to handle requests for them. The archdiocese reminds them of the Catholic Church's position on the vaccine.

"I know priests have responded in a variety of ways," said the Rev. Michael Tix, archdiocese vicar for clergy and parish services. "I am aware that a few priests have written letters of support for parishioners seeking exemptions."

One of the key reasons cited for opposing the vaccine is that at least one vaccine was developed using fetal cell lines, cells grown in a laboratory that originated from an abortion many decades ago. An evangelical law firm based in Florida called Liberty Counsel, a national leader in litigating and facilitating exemptions, offers this wording to use in a sample exemption request form it offers online.

"I have prayed about how to respond to the COVID shot directive … in light of my pro-life and other religious beliefs," the sample letter reads. "I believe my body belongs to God and is the temple of his Holy Spirit. 1 Cor 6:19-20 … My faith prohibits me from participating in or benefiting from an abortion, no matter how remote in time that abortion occurred."

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