Americans distrust religious objectors. But they don’t want them fired
A new Pew Research Center survey further complicates the debate over religious exemption requests to COVID-19 vaccine mandates
Two-thirds of Americans are skeptical of those with faith-based objections to COVID-19 vaccines. Just 31% of U.S. adults believe most religious objectors are being sincere, according to data released Thursday by Pew Research Center.
However, the survey also revealed that people aren’t happy with efforts to fire those seeking religious exemptions. The share of Americans who believe religious objectors should be able to keep their jobs (65%) is nearly identical to the share who question the sincerity of their stated beliefs (67%).
At first glance, these findings may appear to be in tension. Why care about the fate of workers you don’t even trust?
But Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research, says they make sense if you consider two important factors: 1) Skeptics distrust most but not all religious objectors, and 2) Just 29% of U.S. adults believe employers should require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Most people don’t think employers should be mandating vaccination to begin with,” he said.
A plurality of U.S. adults (44%) believe employers should encourage vaccination, but not require it, Pew reported. As with most aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, responses varied widely between the country’s two major political parties.
“We see significant differences between Republicans and Democrats on all of the questions included in this report,” Smith said.
For example, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to view religious concerns about COVID-19 vaccines as sincere. However, even in the GOP, skepticism runs high.
More than half of Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party (55%) believe that most religious objectors are “just using religion as an excuse to avoid the vaccine,” the survey found. Three-quarters of Democrats (77%) share that view.
Religious objectors also don’t get much sympathy from Catholics and Protestants, including evangelical Protestants, who typically champion religious freedom protections. Just over half of white evangelicals (52%) said religious objectors simply want to avoid vaccination.
“These results struck me because we know Republicans and white evangelical Protestants are both more religiously observant than the general population and have comparatively low vaccination rates. But a lot of them are still skeptical” of religious objectors, Smith said.
Pew’s findings are based on responses from 10,441 U.S. adults. The survey was fielded from March 7-13, 2022, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.
Religious exemption requests have been a topic of national debate since businesses began issuing COVID-19 vaccine mandates in mid-2021. Employers have struggled to sort out sincere claims from insincere ones, especially after many faith groups spoke out in favor of vaccination.
“We urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective,” said the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last August.
In light of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers have taken a hard line and either refused to grant religious exemption requests or restricted job opportunities available to unvaccinated workers. Some health care systems have fired any employee who raised faith-based concerns and some military officials have made deployment contingent on COVID-19 vaccination.
These decisions are unpopular among more than just the affected employees, the new survey showed.
“Even among those who say most religious objectors are just using religion as an excuse to avoid the vaccine, there are more people who think religious objectors should be allowed to keep their jobs (37% of all U.S. adults) than think religious objectors should be required to get the vaccine to remain employed (29%),” Pew’s report explained.
In addition to facing pushback from workers, some companies that reject most or all religious exemption requests are facing legal action. Government officials, including military leaders, have been sued, as well.
Clashes over vaccine mandates are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, since companies will likely be slow to adjust their vaccination rules, legal experts told the Deseret News.