God, Vaccines and Mandates

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 19, 2021

The anti-vaxx protest government mandates is in full swing, fueled, and amped by non-stop support from right-leaning commentators and celebrities, various evangelical ministers and what look to be lawsuits by the basketful.

Curiously, the goals of protest seem aimed both at allowing for individual “choice” over mandates, and, well, mandating that the executive orders themselves be declared unconstitutional. Choice for me, no choice for Joe Biden.

Despite thousands of covid-positive tests and 10 departmental death, some 3,000 Los Angeles Police Department employees are planning to seek exemptions from getting the covid vaccine, and a group of police has filed a federal lawsuit against the city’s vaccine and mandates, The Los Angeles Times reports. That is being echoed by police groups in San Diego, Chicago and New York in public service jobs, private businesses and even hospitals, says The Washington Post.

The message: I’d rather quit than be told what to do about covid, a political mindset.

There are still some who argue on medical grounds, disabilities, or over misinformation about vaccine safety, but the tool of choice emerging seems to be a claim of religious incongruity.

Though there are variations in the mandates, claiming religious belief can exempt individuals from most mandates. The question is what does that mean?

Religion, The New Legal Battlefield

As CBS News has explored, claims for earnest religious exemption “is new territory for many employers navigating the issue, given how risky a proposition it is to allow unvaccinated employees to mingle with, and possibly infect, colleagues in the workplace.”

The big question here: What makes for a vaccine waiver based on religion. In effect, it has become the emerging legal battlefield.

None of the major religions oppose vaccines. Pope Francis has blessed the vaccines, calling getting vaccinated as “an act of love” for one’s neighbors. Leaders of all religions in this country and internationally have pleaded for vaccinations in this country and internationally. The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, an ardent Trump supporter, told the Associated Press this week that that “there is no credible religious argument” against receiving the covid vaccine and that he is not offering nor encouraging religious exemption.

Still, some local congregational leaders have done the opposite, decrying vaccines along with mandates. The Freedom Church in Charlotte, N.C. declared “It is despicable for a business or government agency to force someone to take a vaccine that is unproven, dangerous and not fully tested.” Of course, the FDA has reviewed extensive testing and approved the vaccine as safe.

Some have asserted that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine burdens their personal believes because somewhere in its development the company used fetal cell lines developed from aborted fetuses — though that is not true for the far more widely used Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

In Tulsa, Sheridan Church pastor Jackson Lahmeyer, who also owns a real estate investment business, is offering his signature on religious exemption forms from covid vaccines to anyone donating even a dollar to his church for online membership, according to The Washington Post. Experts on religious freedom claims say that most people do not necessarily need a letter from clergy for a religious exemption, but Lahmeyer, who opposes both vaccines and mandates, says it is a way for him to bring the issue to the fore.

In Northern California, the pastor of a megachurch hands out religious exemption. A Texas-based evangelist offers exemption letters to anyone — for a suggested “donation” starting at $25.

No Standards

So, now cities, states, the federal government, and businesses with more than 100 employees are being told to mandate vaccines. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, they must offer exemptions to individuals with either a disability or “sincerely held” religious belief that prevents them from getting the vaccine.

But we don’t know what that means. Declaring oneself a conscientious objector to war, for example, required a whole lot more backup than saying it’s what I believe.

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett without explanation recently struck down an attempt by students at the Indiana University to bypass a vaccine mandate on religious grounds.

Yet, it seems that the legal claim here is that an individual’s “sincerely held” religious belief is enough to qualify for waiver. So, now we are to believe that 3,000 LAPD officers all hold the same religious belief?

By contrast, requests for exemption based on medical grounds usually come with a doctor’s statement, in this case perhaps showing a known allergy to vaccine components. With belief, this is unclear. An employer must engage in a two-sided dialogue to determine if the worker’s request can be met, but then what?

Interviews with experts indicate that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not given the guidance on how to determine what a sincerely held religious belief is. Employers generally do not push back against employees to claim religious beliefs to skip work on a holy day, for example.

Covid is changing the rules, including the rules of protest. Simply saying, “I believe in God, I can’t get vaccinated,” won’t fly either, one labor lawyer told CBS. United Airlines recently denied several employees’ requests for religious exemptions from the airline’s vaccine mandate, saying the employees will be placed on unpaid leave.

This waiver for religion makes it is unclear just how hard or soft Biden’s requirement for companies is in reality. The government has precedent in ordering vaccines, but has placed enforcement in the hands of OSHA, the industrial safety arm of the Labor Department, rather than departments more directly responsible for health.

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