What is a COVID-19 vaccine mandate worth if it includes exemptions for “sincerely held religious beliefs”? Very little, if anything at all.
If the definition of religious beliefs were contained to major, established religions, there would basically be no exemptions because no major religion bans vaccination against COVID-19 or other diseases. In fact, leaders of many large congregations have been telling their flocks during the pandemic, “Don’t look to me for a religious excuse.”
And the wording “sincerely held,” which many employers have included in their mandates, doesn’t guard against the anti-vax sentiments of employees who might have recently formed their own Church of Moderna Disbelievers. Who can see into a person’s sincerity, even if their claim seems like a hastily and conveniently adopted spirituality that calls for letting COVID-19 run its course of illness and death?
Given how large a loophole religious exemptions create, no one should be remotely surprised that thousands of Los Angeles employees are lining up to claim religious exemptions from the city’s vaccine requirement for its employees — a little more than 10% overall, but with police personnel particularly prominent. About a quarter of LAPD employees have indicated they are planning on filing for a religious exemption. An additional 360 plan to seek medical exceptions.
Meanwhile, a group of LAPD and L.A. Fire Department employees are suing the city to end the mandate altogether, with or without an exemption. They claim that requiring vaccination as a condition of their job violates their constitutional rights to privacy and due process.
Shame on them. For the most part, these are personnel who come into close contact with the public on a regular basis. Their jobs call for them to protect the public, and that shouldn’t just mean from crime and fire. They have an obligation to avoid harming the people they serve.
Similar claims and lawsuits are cropping up across the country. Some go further than arguing that religious freedom should cover anyone who claims such a spiritual belief and say they object because the vaccines were developed or designed using cell lines from aborted fetal tissue, though the vaccines themselves contain no such tissue. Pope Francis, however, has urged people to be vaccinated.
Governments and public agencies that have allowed religious exemptions from their vaccine mandates have done so largely to avoid lawsuits. Obviously, that ploy didn’t work.
Religious exemptions don’t protect the public, and when it comes to COVID-19, public health must remain the overriding priority. Courts have generally ruled that employers must make reasonable allowances for religious beliefs, but even in the cases when those claims are the result of legitimate, deeply held spiritual or moral beliefs, it is not reasonable to allow COVID-19 to continue threatening public health.
In other words, employers should eliminate religious exemptions when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination. The mandates should apply to everyone except the very few who have legitimate and serious medical issues that make the vaccine dangerous for them.
California schools have done this for the last several years for the regular schedule of childhood vaccines, after state lawmakers got rid of the “personal belief” exemption following a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in 2014. And school vaccine mandates have been repeatedly upheld by courts, including those without a religious exemption.
COVID-19 vaccines aren’t on that list of childhood immunizations, of course. But the Los Angeles Unified School District recently mandated them for all students who are eligible to receive them, which now is ages 12 and older, regardless of religious beliefs. Yet the school district strangely allowed religious exemptions for teachers and other staff members.
That doesn’t make public health sense. What’s good for students is good for employees: All those who are medically eligible should offer up their arms for a jab.
Time to get more consistency and fairness around these rules. Religious convictions — whether newly found as a convenient excuse or long held by sincere believers — cannot trump the importance of bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control.©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.