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What you need to know about religious exemptions to vaccine mandates

A recent survey found that 52% of U.S. adults favor offering religious exemptions to vaccine mandates

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

As the COVID-19 crisis deepens and communities across the country struggle with a shortage of hospital beds, support is falling for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.

In March, 56% of U.S. adults favored offering exemptions to religious objectors. By June, that figure had dropped four percentage points to 52%, according to Public Religion Research Institute.

In general, Americans are skeptical of those who say vaccine mandates, like the one proposed this month by President Joe Biden that will affect private employers with more than 100 workers, violate their religious freedom.

Only one-quarter of U.S. adults (26%) sided with religious objectors in a recent survey that laid out a hypothetical scenario involving an unvaccinated kid being denied enrollment at a public school.

Still, it’s unlikely that religious exemptions will disappear anytime soon in part because of the way courts apply the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections.

In recent months, a variety of states, schools and employers that have tried to limit or remove exemptions from vaccine mandates wound up in court.

Here’s what you need to know about those ongoing cases and the broader debate surrounding religious exemptions to vaccine mandates:

What faith groups oppose vaccination?

Requests for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates are controversial for the same reason that requests for religious exemptions to any vaccine mandate are controversial: Almost no faith group formally opposes vaccination.

In fact, many religious leaders actively encourage church members to seek out vaccines, rather than refuse them.

In recent months, the pope, prominent evangelical pastors and leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have all spoken in favor of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We urge individuals to be vaccinated,” the church’s First Presidency said in an Aug. 12 statement.

Even the Christian Science Church, which generally discourages its members from seeking medical treatment and advises reliance on prayer instead, has not rejected the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Kaiser Heath News. Instead, “it counsels ‘respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination.’”

“There is no actual religious basis for exemptions from vaccine mandates in any established stream of Christianity,” argued Curtis Chang, a former pastor, in a recent op-ed for The New York Times.

Why would someone need a religious exemption?

However, in the vaccine debate, as in other contexts, statements made by religious leaders are not the only factor influencing individual believers’ decisions. Just as there are Catholics who take birth control or support abortion rights despite their church’s teachings, there are people of faith who say getting vaccinated would harm their relationship with God.

In many cases, these believers point to the use of aborted fetal cells in some vaccine research as the source of their religious concerns. Other times, they may express a desire to rely on their faith, rather than modern medicine, to keep them safe or claim that the vaccine is the work of the devil.

“A video ... in July (2020) — ‘Could vaccines be the mark of the beast?’ — speculated that mask mandates in stores and other (COVID-19) rules might signal the mark because they were the first step in preventing people from being able to buy and sell, which Revelations suggests will be prohibited in the End Time,” The Washington Post reported in February.

Do religious objectors have to prove they’re sincere?

Chang and others have described religious objectors’ concerns as insincere. But, at least in lawsuits involving government-issued vaccine mandates, the sincerity — or sanity — of religious individuals is not the core issue.

“The court doesn’t make someone prove why their religion doesn’t support vaccination,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs for the University of Illinois System, to the Deseret News this summer.

In other words, people with unusual or uncommon beliefs about vaccines can still succeed in their quest for religious exemptions. Previous rulings in religious freedom cases have made it clear that the government cannot assess the legitimacy of someone’s faith-based concerns, wrote Jared K. Cook, a New York attorney, for the Deseret News.

“As a lawyer, the question is not whether a person’s religious beliefs are correct according to the authorities of their denomination. Heretics have as much a claim to religious freedom as the orthodox,” he said.

Although private employers have more leeway than the government to push back against exemption requests, they are often similarly deferential. Few company leaders are looking to get into a theological debate.

“I have a feeling that not a lot of people are going to want to fight on this topic,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an expert on infectious diseases, to Kaiser Health News.

Instead, companies often look for reasonable — and affordable — accommodations. Religious objectors may be asked to wear masks or continue working from home. Employers may also require them to be regularly tested.

“If the employer is already providing such accommodations for those who cannot be vaccinated because of a health conditions that genuinely prevents vaccination ... it may be difficult to justify not providing them for those with a genuine religious objection to vaccination,” Cook wrote for the Deseret News.

Are vaccine mandates without religious exemptions legal?

It’s likely that some Americans take advantage of the relative ease of accessing religious exemptions and claim them even when their vaccine concerns aren’t primarily religious, according to legal experts. But business or government leaders who try to close this perceived loophole often end up in court.

Currently, there are several cases involving religious objectors to vaccine mandates working their way through the legal system. In Michigan, a group of religious student-athletes recently won a temporary restraining order against their school’s vaccine requirement. In Connecticut, officials are awaiting a court decision on whether they can stop offering religious exemptions to public school vaccine rules.

In cases involving religious objections to vaccine mandates, officials who support the challenged mandate are typically required to articulate why the availability of a religious exemption would put public health at risk. That can be surprisingly hard to do, especially when religious objections are rare or the objectors say they’re willing to wear masks and submit to regular testing.

One thing that supporters and detractors of religious exemptions agree on is that the legal battle over vaccine mandates is far from over.

“More cases and appeals are sure to come as vaccine mandates widen. If ... early disputes are any indication, the outcomes are likely to be as diverse as the situations they resolve,” wrote Don Byrd from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty earlier this month.