In May, Greg Locke, the right-wing evangelical head pastor of Tennessee’s Baptist Global Vision Bible Church, told a cheering congregation that “elites” were trying to push an unsafe vaccine on the public while injecting themselves with sugar water. “I know some of you, like, ‘My goodness! What am I gonna—my boss told me that if I don’t get the vaccination that I’m gonna lose my job,’” he said. “I can write you a religious exemption, and we will sue their stinkin’ pants off!”
Locke is certainly not the only faith leader promoting anti-vax objections in the guise of religious concerns. A pastor in Riverside County, California, told his congregation in the spring that the vaccine was “unclean” and directed them to a downloadable form Christians could use to claim religious exemptions. Some Catholic clergy and groups have made such resources available, despite the pope’s very clear position on the matter; the Colorado Catholic Conference even published a template for Catholics seeking religious exemptions. Other churches have offered the same.
No major religions have expressed anything but support for the vaccine, but the rising number of vaccine mandates across the United States has spurred both the faithful and faith leaders to seek out and promote religious exemptions for the vaccine. While people like Locke make the concept sound simple, the reality is that there are no standard practices for determining or even allowing religious exemptions to vaccines. The idea of a religious exemption as a concept has a long and complicated history in the U.S., but it has rarely, and possibly never, come up against something as massive and urgent as the coronavirus pandemic. The reality is that religion is a powerful thing to wield, but it’s not necessarily a magic bullet.
So when and where do exemptions work? The easiest answer is: wherever someone wants to offer one, given that it’s not clear anyone actually has to.
When businesses implement vaccine mandates for their employees, they are coming up with policies on the fly. Many add in language about a religious exemption on the advice of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has recommended that employers make reasonable efforts to accommodate employees with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But even employers who don’t specify that there are religious exemptions may quickly cave when presented with a religious objection. Given the number of people raring to sue over the vaccine mandates, it wouldn’t be surprising if some businesses opted to offer exemptions to avoid getting lawyers involved.
In the public sphere, things are similarly vague. Many states already have statutes guaranteeing religious exemptions for vaccines. When it came to mandates for public schools and government employees, the exemptions were often automatically built in. The U.S. military, which will begin requiring vaccines in the fall, has a formal process by which members request a religious exemption. The requirements can vary state by state, city by city, institution by institution.
According to legal experts, it’s still an open question if anyone has to offer religious exemptions. While some argue that Title VII protections for employees include allowing religious exemptions for vaccines, others argue that an employer only has to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if they do not amount to an undue hardship—a caveat that could certainly be applied to the heightened risk of transmitting COVID. An employer may also choose to accommodate the employee by making them wear masks, social distance, take frequent COVID tests, and otherwise operate by different rules than vaccinated employees. And Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who studies vaccines and the law, said that she has seen more lawsuits directed against institutions that gave religious exemptions but denied specific individuals. It’s possible employers may be safer by giving no ground at all, she said.
While some religious liberty advocates claim that the First Amendment protects any government employees making such claims, the current precedent holds that as long as a law is generally applicable and on its face neutral, it doesn’t amount to religious discrimination. This is particularly the case when the government has a real and compelling reason, such as public health, to refuse exemptions—which legal scholars say certainly applies here. “I am about as strong a supporter of religious exemptions as you can find in legal academia,” said Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, in an email. “And I think that under the general law of religious liberty, including the Constitution and state and federal RFRAs, vaccination is an easy case for refusing exemption.” Vaccine mandates are new territory, but courts so far seem to agree. “Increasingly, people are dropping religious exemptions,” said Michael Hayes, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “So I think that’s going to be the trend, except for one judge here or there who might go in favor of religion.”
Universities have so far indicated nervousness about religious claims, even though a judge has ruled that Indiana University, which did offer religious exemptions, could implement neutral COVID restrictions and that its religious exemption was not a constitutional requirement. It’s not clear if the current Supreme Court will want to tighten the protections around religious exemptions, though, so some public institutions may offer them to be safe.
But there’s another big legal question surrounding these claims: how to police them. Some courts have indicated that they would be more lenient with sincere religious objections. Others say it’s wrong for a court to decide what beliefs are sincere. While in some cases it’s evident when a person is using religion as a cover, other times it’s impossible to tell. When a Sacramento-area megachurch pastor began offering religious exemptions letters, he insisted they were “issued to individuals who have a sincere belief.”
Making it all harder, courts have said a person’s religious beliefs don’t have to align with the institution’s official doctrine. “The way the law is makes policing this a nightmare,” said Reiss. “You’re not there to enforce the rules of the religion. You also can’t assess whether their belief makes sense. The question is, are they sincere, not rational.” So while the pope has explicitly called on the faithful to be vaccinated as an “act of love,” and while the Archdioceses of New York, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles and the bishops of San Diego and Lexington, Kentucky, have ordered their priests not to grant religious exemptions (and the Lexington bishop mandated vaccines for all diocese employees), individual Catholics can still very well claim that their objection to the vaccine is rooted in their religious beliefs. The same goes for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which called for all its members—who resist vaccination at a similar rate to white evangelicals—to be vaccinated. Statements from Franklin Graham and the National Association of Evangelicals are irrelevant to the Christians they lead. All that matters, as far as the law sees it, is an individual’s claim to an honest belief.
But setting these debates aside, there are practical reasons anti-vaxxers might seek out letters from faith leaders. Employers, or even state and municipal laws, may ask for proof of a person’s religious belief to support their claim. The Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has formed a committee to review religious exemption requests from its employees, according to the Washington Post. The committee includes medical, legal, labor, and human resources experts, as well as “the hospital’s lead chaplain, a tenured professor who chairs the university’s department of religion, health and human values.” According to the Post, the hospital asks employees to provide letters from a religious institution if that is the source of the complaint; if not, they’ll be quizzed on the specifics of their faith and their reasoning for the objection. The military, which like hospitals has extra motivation not to be duped by anti-vaxxers in its midst, will pull together a panel that includes chaplains to examine individual claims. The application process also requires service members to provide documented proof of religious beliefs and face questioning over whether they truly belong to a legitimate religion, why their religion leads to such objections, and whether their opposition to vaccines is a new development.
There are groups for which such claims aren’t so immediately suspect. Christian Scientists, for example, aren’t keen on vaccines. Nor are Dutch Reformed Congregations and a number of faith healing Christian denominations. But those groups have so far been fairly level-headed in their response; while in the last century the Christian Scientists spearheaded campaigns for religious exemptions, they currently counsel their members to “respect…public health authorities” and “cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials.” Conservative Catholics may be genuine in their ethical quibbles over the vaccine’s distant connection to fetal cell lines, but many of their fellow Catholics suspect that the unease that led them there is as much political as it is religious.
Given the scarcity of evidence for legitimate religious opposition and overwhelming evidence for abuse of the concept, many experts feel that institutions should try not to give too much ground. Even with the tests probing the authenticity of the claims, Reiss said, the system as it exists does little to discourage dishonesty. “In an area where we have people gaming and willing to help others game the system, it’s asking for abuse and privileging the better liars over the less sophisticated liars,” she said. “You end up with a system where those who know where to look for help or know how to ask for help get religious exemptions.”
Outside of religious institutions, a network has emerged to help those seeking to manipulate the system. Facebook groups and blogs offer advice on how to fake claims. Some more ambitious anti-vaxxers offer workshops. Louisiana’s attorney general sent his employees an email telling them how to use religious exemptions to get their children out of potential school mask and vaccine mandates. “There is anecdotal and survey evidence that most claims to religious motivation for refusing vaccination are false,” Laycock said.
While it seems that disingenuous anti-vaxxers may have the upper hand as things stand, Reiss has another solution: get rid of religious exemptions and offer exemptions instead to anyone who wants one for any reason—but make them hard to get. Already, the military plans to have active-duty military members take mandatory counseling to learn about the vaccine and discuss ways their assignments and travel may be negatively affected by their refusal. This same philosophy could be applied elsewhere. As an example, she said, employees could be required to take a multi-day online course and quiz dedicated to the vaccine and COVID. “Then,” she said, “you’re not forcing people to lie about their religion.”