Faith-based

The For-Profit World of Religious Vaccine Exemptions

A woman holds a sign that says, "VACCINE MANDATES VIOLATE BODILY AUTONOMY."
Rallygoers hold signs protesting vaccines at an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally in Concord, New Hampshire, on May 15. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

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For the past few weeks, Ruth Graham has been logging on to Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, to eavesdrop. Graham reports on religion for the New York Times. She was interested in QAnon, at first.  It’s hard for Graham to describe what she’s been hearing. Is it religious chatter? Political?

Lately, these personal anecdotes have begun to focus on one topic in particular: whether your job can require you to get a COVID vaccine and whether your religion might get you exempted if your employer is clamping down. “There’s a rising desperation in some of these quarters to find a way out of these mandates,” Graham says.

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These people are nurses, or local cops. Some have gone to protests, signed petitions. In other words, they feel pretty strongly about vaccines, and—they don’t want them. The millions of people now being mandated to get vaccines have a single escape hatch to cram through if they don’t want the shot: They need a religious exemption. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Graham about these exemptions and who will get one and who won’t. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: When you spoke to folks on Telegram about their religious beliefs, did their reasons for avoiding the COVID vaccine seem sincere to you?

Ruth Graham: They seemed sincere in that they are all going to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting a lifesaving vaccine that is endorsed by every mainstream medical and religious authority and that millions of people have taken safely. It’s almost like by definition, if you don’t want to do that, there is a sincerity there. They really don’t want to do it. The thing that is hard to suss out is whether that is primarily a religious belief or if people are kind of back engineering religious reasons to avoid something that they have health or political objections to.

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So right now, the question is: Is it a protected belief?

Right. And so that’s the complicated thing.

You spoke offline to one of these people, a woman named Crisann Holmes.

She lives in Indiana. She’s worked for a few years for a mental health care system there that announced an employee mandate. There was a small subset of her fellow employees that were really up in arms about this. Crisann has gotten most of her usual slate of vaccines. But she does not get the flu vaccine and has been reading more and more and doing her own research online about the COVID vaccine, and just has a lot of concerns about it. There was a little protest at work where some people skipped work as a protest to the policy. She signed a petition, and then she also did submit her own religious accommodation form, and she’s waiting to hear on that now. Her employer actually came back to her and gave her a form for a religious leader to fill out.

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Crisann’s story is pretty similar to one Ruth Graham’s been hearing from workers around the country, people are putting their company’s HR departments through a sudden stress test.

No one I talked to from the employment perspective had ever dealt with a religious exemption situation on this scale and all at once. You have these requirements happening basically en masse across the country. So you’re enacting a new requirement on your entire employee base all at once, and it’s an incredibly hot button issue as well. Traditionally, the religious exemptions that HR departments are used to dealing with are things like “I would like a different holiday schedule,” or “I would like to just tweak the uniform or grooming requirements”—one-off things that they are accustomed to managing and can make pretty easy, obvious accommodations to. A mass new vaccination requirement in the middle of a pandemic when workplaces have already been under so much upheaval, it’s a much thornier situation for employers.

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And the legal basis for this request is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, right? 

Yes, exactly. And that was written in a time when you think about religious exemptions much more in terms of organized religion. So with vaccines, you think of Christian Scientists, maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses, a few established minority faith traditions that have a very clear theological objection to this kind of thing. And actually, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are both open to the vaccine now. They say it’s a matter of personal choice. So even what we think of as these faiths that do object to it don’t object outright to the COVID vaccine. So that law was written in a very, very different era in terms of how we see religious faith practiced in America.

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OK, so I’m vaccinated. I’m going to assume that you’re vaccinated too. 

I am, yeah.

I’m wondering if we can do a little thought experiment: If I was totally sincere in my anti-vaccine beliefs and attributed those beliefs to religion, what would my logic be? 

So, there are a few arguments, and I’ll talk about this from the Christian perspective, since that’s what everyone I spoke to happened to be. And that seems to be where most of the objections come from. A verse you hear a lot is from First Corinthians in the New Testament: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” which traditionally is used as, like, “take care of your body.” I remember hearing that in church growing up—exercise, eat healthy. But it can also be used to expand out to any kind of health concern you might have.

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Yeah, it feels kind of wellness adjacent. 

Exactly. It becomes a bridge to any kind of medical or health concern you might have about the vaccine. There are also a lot of Bible verses exhorting believers to “do not fear,” “do not be afraid.” That’s been a really common theme in objections to a lot of the pandemic restrictions. So, do not be afraid. That’s why I want my megachurch to continue meeting in person throughout the pandemic. Do not be afraid. That’s why I don’t want to wear a mask. I’m not afraid. The fear theme is really big.

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Crisann, the woman I spoke to in Indiana, quoted a verse, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit.” So again, an idea of not wanting to contaminate the body is kind of an act of faith.

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And I guess contamination is in the eye of the beholder. 

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Exactly. So, again, it’s like if you already see the vaccine as a kind of contamination, then you have this religious language to cover that.

And then the other really big theme is this very remote connection to abortion, where some fetal cell lines drawn from a small number abortions in the ’60s and ’70s were involved in the testing and development phase of some of the covid vaccines.

We should be clear that when we talk about the development of the vaccine, fetal cells are not in the vaccine, right?

No.

It’s just that they were useful in terms of developing elements of the vaccine that are now in use. 

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Yeah, that’s exactly right. There’s a real spectrum of how thoroughly people understand the science on that, because certainly I’ve heard that there’s, like, fetal tissue in the vaccines themselves. Absolutely not. It’s, again, a very remote connection to the research and development phase of these vaccines. And it’s something like two elective abortions in the ’60s and ’70s, so it’s remote. It is something that people who are very attuned to the abortion issue and are anti-abortion have talked about in the past with other vaccines, the MMR vaccine. And the Catholic Church has done a lot of writing about this and thinking about this. And they do say this is a legitimate moral concern but also so is the pandemic. And they think the higher concern at this point is getting the vaccine. They have endorsed the vaccine.

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Right. The pope has come out and endorsed the vaccine. And I don’t think that anyone is questioning his pro-life bona fides. 

Yeah, exactly. But it just becomes one of these things that circulates online and people interpret in the way they want to.

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Well, it’s interesting because I covered health and medicine for a long time and I just can’t help but think about the HeLa cells, where cells were taken without permission from Henrietta Lacks—a Black woman—and used for all sorts of medications. And it just makes you think: What is an ethical cell line? I don’t know that we’ve figured that out.

These are really, really deep ethical questions. I think it’s possible to take those things seriously, to take those questions seriously and still embrace the vaccines. But instead, what you have with a lot of these new conversations is just that becomes a hook for conspiracy-mongering online and just another reason to reject a vaccine that you are already skeptical of for any number of other reasons.

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Have you been able to read any of the applications that anti-vaccine folks have filed with their employers asking for an accommodation? 

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Yes, a few. A lot of them use pretty similar language because there are these templates available online. Sometimes you pay for it, and sometimes people just share it on some of these forums. And then it’s really personal language, too. So, people are writing accounts of their own faith, writing down how often I go to church or how long I’ve been a Christian—these little testimonies about their beliefs.

You mentioned how there’s some element of these applications that can feel like a copy-paste job, and I know you’ve written a bit about how exemption letters have become a little bit of a business for some up-and-coming evangelical preachers. Can you explain that a bit? 

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You can find them pretty easily online. I came across a self-described prophet here where I live in Texas, who, in exchange for a donation, will send you a letter in which she will vouch for your religious belief in opposition to the vaccine. There are pastors online who are offering it for free, although, again, often asking for a donation in exchange. There are other organizations that let you buy, like, a workshop. So it includes the template language but also just advice on navigating your employer’s system. Those are often a set price. I know I saw one for like $59.99.

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There’s a market for this right now. There’s a lot of people panicking about this, a lot of people who want to keep their jobs but also get out of this requirement. And so any time there’s a market, including in the faith space, there are going to be entrepreneurs who step up to fit that need.

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You quoted someone who called them “conflict entrepreneurs.” 

I love that term so much. And I think it’s a good way of also differentiating a certain class of faith leader who is really leaning into this conflict versus the local pastor figure who’s trying to walk their own church members through this in a way that brings them peace. And I talked to pastors in that local pastor model who have different approaches to that. So I interviewed one guy in Minnesota who had someone come up to him and say, “Can I get one of these letters?” And actually, she wanted it because she was going she was taking a trip to New York and wanted to get into restaurants and everything.  And so she asked him for an exemption letter, which I actually don’t even know if that would work. And he denied it and talked her through why he was denying it and why he didn’t think that there was a legitimate religious reason to get out of the vaccine.

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And then I talked to another pastor in Iowa who wrote up his own letter as a template that he’s willing to sign for people. He signed like 30-some of them. And he wrote that completely of his own accord, drawing from some kind of 16th-century church text.

The deep cuts. 

The really deep cuts, exactly, yeah. And for him, it was more about freedom of conscience. A lot of different people are willing to meet these needs.

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The pastor who caught my attention was this guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jackson Lahmeyer, who said, if you donate to my church, I’ll sign a religious exemption letter for you. And then the wrinkle is that he’s also running for Senate in that state. And I think the reason I and others found him so interesting is that in thinking about these exemptions, I’m asking myself all the time: Is this really a religious belief or a political one? And you look at a story like that and you kind of realize it’s both.

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You hear different things from people who have been working on religious liberty issues for a long time. You have some conservative organizations who are initiating lawsuits on this, who are coming out really strong trying to help people get out of these mandates under the guise of religious liberty.

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And then you have some other religious liberty advocates who are really worried about this and really coming out strong against it. I talked to a guy at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. They’ve been really strongly for the vaccine. And he told me if everything becomes a religious liberty issue, then nothing is. And basically, these objections are political. They’re medical. And if we label everything religious liberty, they run the risk of hurting themselves now and really losing integrity on conversations going forward that they feel are much more organically and authentically connected to core faith beliefs.

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I think about how so many of these religious institutions are pro vaccine, but then you have these individual pastors who are willing to go out on a limb and say that objections to the vaccine are religious in nature. So is there any movement from the institutions to get involved with these pastors who are freelancing, like sanction them in some way? Or does this just underline the fact that religion in America has become so dispersed and untethered from the institutions?

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It’s the latter. A lot of these institutions who are for the vaccine have come out and said that very clearly, and it’s just an incredible example of the deinstitutionalization of religion right now.

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You mentioned that once these exemption applications reach an employer, they’re kind of overwhelmed, they haven’t seen so many of these ever before, all at one time. Can you talk to me a little bit about your conversations with those folks who are receiving vaccine exemption requests?

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The conversations that I had were with people who really wanted to do this fairly and sift out the sincere exemptions from the ones that didn’t meet that standard.

God, how do you even do that?

You almost need, like, a philosopher or something on staff to try to disentangle all this stuff. But in Tucson, when I talked to the assistant city manager, they had approved slightly more than half of those requests. That might give you a rough sense of how this might go, where a significant share are being approved, and then some are being outright rejected.

It’s certainly not a simple process. And of course, because of labor shortages, not only do employers not want to get in legal trouble, but they also don’t want to get into a situation where employees are quitting en masse over this. So it’s a tightrope act.

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A lot of these mandates are pretty new. You alluded to the fact that when the rubber meets the road, a lot of times people just cave–they do what their employer asks them because they want a job. In a month or two, what do you think is the story you’re going to be writing about these mandates?

There’s a lot of big talk. It’s easy to say that you are willing to quit your job. Crisann, the woman in Indiana, did say she’s willing to lose her job over this. And who am I to question that? We’re in a landscape here where there are labor shortages. It’s a workers’ market for a lot of these folks. So it’s possible that people will quit their jobs. Although, again, given how widespread these mandates are, it raises the question of: Where do you go?

I would be surprised, though, if huge numbers of people quit their jobs over this versus just agreeing to get the vaccine and being mad about it, frankly. I think this is already not the majority of workers. And by the time this all gets drawn out, I think that most people will come around.

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