As COVID-19 vaccine mandates rise, religious exemptions grow
An estimated 2,600 Los Angeles Police Department employees are citing religious objections to try to get out of the required COVID-19 vaccination. In Washington state, thousands of state workers are seeking similar exemptions.
And in Arkansas, a hospital has been swamped with so many such requests from employees that it is apparently calling their bluff.
Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.
And it is only likely to grow following President Joe Biden’s sweeping new vaccine mandates covering more than 100 million Americans, including executive branch employees and workers at businesses with more than 100 people on the payroll.
The administration acknowledges that a small minority of Americans will use — and some may seek to exploit — religious exemptions. But it said it believes even marginal improvements in vaccination rates will save lives.
It is not clear how many federal employees have asked for a religious exemption, though union officials say there will be many requests. The Labor Department has said an accommodation can be denied if it causes an undue burden on the employer.
In the states, mask and vaccine requirements vary, but most offer exemptions for certain medical conditions or religious or philosophical objections. The use of such exemptions, particularly by parents on behalf of their schoolchildren, has been growing over the past decade.
The allowance was enshrined in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of “sincerely held” religious beliefs.
A religious belief does not have to be recognized by an organized religion, and it can be new, unusual or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others,” according to rules laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But it can’t be founded solely on political or social ideas.
That puts employers in the position of determining what is a legitimate religious belief and what is a dodge.
Many major religious denominations have no objections to the COVID-19 vaccines. But the rollout has prompted heated debates because of the longtime role that cell lines derived from fetal tissue have played, directly or indirectly, in the research and development of various vaccines and medicines.
Roman Catholic leaders in New Orleans and St. Louis went so far as to call Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 shot “morally compromised.” J&J has stressed that there is no fetal tissue in its vaccine.
Moreover, the Vatican’s doctrine office has said it is “morally acceptable” for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines that are based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses. Pope Francis himself has said it would be “suicide” not to get the shot, and he has been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer formula.
In New York, state lawmakers have attempted to make the vaccine mandatory for medical workers, with no religious exemptions. On Tuesday, a federal judge blocked the state from enforcing the rule to give a group of workers time to argue that it is illegal because it lacks the opt-out.
Andrew Kurtyko, a registered nurse, is among those who want a religious exemption to not take the vaccine, and he is preparing to leave New York for Florida with his 18-year-old daughter if necessary.
Kurtyko said the “draconian” vaccine requirements in the U.S. remind him of communist Poland where he grew up before he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1991. He is a Catholic who believes fetal stem cells were experimented with in making the vaccine. He called Pope Francis’ guidance to get vaccinated “his own opinion.”
“My parents came to this country for better living and crossed the ocean,” said Kurtyko. “The least I can do is fight for myself and my family is to go to a different state where religious exemptions are still being honored.. . . Our rights are being trampled.”
Across the U.S., public officials, doctors and community leaders have been trying to help people circumvent COVID-19 mask and vaccine requirements.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, pastor Jackson Lahmeyer is offering a “religious exemption” form on his church’s website for download, along with links for suggested donations to the church. The 29-year-old is running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican.
Anyone interested can get the form signed by a religious leader, or Lahmeyer can sign it himself if the person joins the church and donates. He said more than 35,000 people downloaded the form in just three days.
“We’re not anti-vaxxers. We’re just pro-freedom,” Lahmeyer said. “A lot of these people who have signed ... have already taken the vaccine. They just don’t think it’s right that somebody else should be forced or lose their job.”
But obtaining a religious exemption is not as simple as producing a signed form. Measles outbreaks in schools over the past decade prompted some states to change their policies. Some now require an actual signed affidavit from a religious leader, instead of an online form. California got rid of nonmedical exemptions in 2015.
Some employers are taking a hard line. United Airlines told employees last week that those who obtain religious exemptions will be put on unpaid leave until new coronavirus testing procedures are in place.
In Los Angeles, Police Chief Michel Moore said he is waiting for guidance from the city personnel department on how to handle exemption requests. The city has mandated that municipal employees get vaccinated by Oct. 5 unless they are granted a medical or religious exemption. A group of LAPD employees is suing over the policy.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had a warning for those seeking exemptions: “We will not tolerate the abuse of these exemptions by those who simply don’t want to get vaccinated. To anyone thinking about filing a disingenuous exemption request, I strongly urge that you reconsider.”
In Washington state, approximately 60,000 state employees are subject to a mandate issued by Gov. Jay Inslee that they be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their job, unless they obtain a medical or religious exemption and receive an accommodation that allows them to remain employees.
As of Tuesday, more than 3,800 workers had requested religious exemptions. So far, 737 have been approved, but officials stressed that an exemption does not guarantee continued employment.
Once the exemption is approved, each agency has to evaluate whether the employee can still do the job with an accommodation while ensuring a safe workplace. Seven accommodations so far have been granted.
Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said the process “may help distinguish between a sincerely held personal belief and a sincerely held religious belief.”
In Arkansas, about 5% of the staff at the privately run Conway Regional Health System has requested religious or medical exemptions.
The hospital responded by sending employees a form that lists a multitude of common medicines — including Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, Preparation H and Tums — that it said were developed or tested using fetal cell lines.
The form asks people to sign it and attest that “my sincerely held religious belief is consistent and true and I do not use or will not use” any of the listed medications.
In a statement, Conway Regional Health President and CEO Matt Troup said: “Staff who are sincere ... should have no hesitancy with agreeing to the list of medicines listed.”
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Carla K. Johnson, Ricardo Alonzo-Zaldivar Sean Murphy, Stefanie Dazio, Brady McCombs and Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.