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Religious exemptions to COVID vaccine: what counts, what doesn’t and how it works

 Kimberlee Loisel said she doesn’t think God wants her to get a COVID-19 vaccine. “I do believe that it’s not right  for me to put this in m...

 Kimberlee Loisel said she doesn’t think God wants her to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I do believe that it’s not right for me to put this in my body,” she told The Sun Herald last week at a protest against the federal COVID-19 vaccine requirement. “I’ve prayed about it, and this is not something that God wants me to do.”

Loisel has worked for 18 years at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi — a rocket engine test site for NASA where all federal contract employees are required to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8 or face termination.

In response, many have filed a request for religious exemption.

It’s not the first time the country has experienced an uptick in religious exemptions amid a viral outbreak. In 2018, health officials in South Carolina saw more parents claiming religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children against measles, which was making an unexpected comeback in the U.S., The State reported.

At the time, doctors theorized the rise in exemptions stemmed from a spread of misinformation causing vaccine hesitancy.

Now, amid the release of President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing requirement for companies with more than 100 employees — which goes into effect on Jan. 4 — interest in religious exemptions has spiked again.

Here’s what federal authorities and legal experts say about how it relates to COVID-19 vaccine mandates:


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows workers to request an exception to a job requirement if it “conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances,” labor and employment lawyers at Perkins Coie, which is headquartered in Seattle, said.

But what counts as a sincerely held religious belief in the eyes of the law can be complicated.

“Religious beliefs typically concern the ultimate ideas about life, purpose, and death, humanity’s place in the universe, or right and wrong, and reflect a moral or ethical belief system,” according to Perkins Coie. “Religion includes not only traditional, organized religions, but also religious beliefs that are not part of a formal church or sect or are new or uncommon.”

That means there might be only one follower, or the religion could seem illogical and otherwise unreasonable to the outside world. But according to the law firm, it would still be protected under Title VII.

There is, however, an important distinction between religious beliefs and “personal, social, political, or economic beliefs,” which, according to Perkins Coie, are not considered grounds for an exemption under the law. That means an employee’s fear of being vaccinated because they believe the vaccine testing procedures were rushed wouldn’t count.

“Simply feeling passionately about something is not sufficient to give it the status of religion in someone’s life,” the firm said.


Most major religious leaders and organizations have not spoken out against getting a coronavirus vaccine, according to the national law firm Bradley, which has offices in Dallas, Charlotte and Nashville, among other cities.

In fact, some religious groups such as Christian Scientists — typically opposed to vaccines of any kind — have “expressed openness to the vaccine for the current pandemic,” Bradley said. Pope Francis, head of the Catholic church, has also said getting a COVID-19 vaccine is a “simple way of promoting the common good.”

The pope’s stance is particularly important in light of widespread concerns that the creation of the shots involvedaborted fetal cells.

Chip Ellis, who protested the vaccine mandate at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, told The Sun Herald that belief is in part why he submitted a request for a religious exemption.

“For me, that’s a significant religious violation. That’s a sin for me. God has told me clearly that abortion is equivalent to murder,” he told the newspaper. “Babies were made in the image of God. Partaking in [the vaccine] is partaking in that act.”

The Archdiocese of New Orleans advised Catholics in March not to get the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, citing an “abortion-derived cell line” used in its development, McClatchy News previously reported.

But diocesan leaders did approve the use of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Scientists have clarified that none of the COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal cells. The development of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was aided by a specific cell line called PER.C6 — a group of cells replicated in a lab from the retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985, McClatchy News reported.

Those fetal cell lines “are not taken from recent abortions,” according to Reuters, and are “thousands of times removed from the original fetus cells.”

That means the finished Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not contain fetal tissues.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces civil rights laws in the workplace, updated its guidelines at the end of October on applying for a religious exemption as it relates to a coronavirus vaccine.

The agency said anyone seeking an exemption must tell their employer, but there are no “magic words” that an employee has to use in making the request.

Employers should also do their part to provide a path forward — such as informing workers whom to contact and what procedures to use, the EEOC said.

Some people have shared tips in Facebook groups about what to say or do in order to ensure their request for a religious accommodation is granted. Those posts often contain misleading information about fetal cells or links to churches and other individuals offering signed exemption letters — usually for a price, NPR reported.

“Keep in mind, the employer really has a lot of discretion in granting these exemptions whether or not you have one of these signed letters,” the media outlet reported. “So people should probably think twice about paying for these services.”


Questioning the sincerity

Employers are generally told to assume a request for an exemption is based on sincerely held religious beliefs, the EEOC said. But an employer can ask for supporting information if they have an “objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief.”

The sincerity of those beliefs largely falls on an individual employee’s credibility, according to the EEOC.

Something that might undermine an employee’s credibility is whether they act “in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief,” the agency said.

For example, when dozens of employees at Conway Regional Health System in Arkansas sought religious exemptions to a COVID-19 vaccine, citing fetal cells, the CEO sent them a list of common medications that also use fetal cells in the research and development phases, NPR reported. The list included Tylenol, Motrin and Tums.

The workers were then required to sign a statement pledge not to use any of those medications.

“They need to know that if they’re going to be consistent in their beliefs, that applies to a lot of different things other than the COVID vaccine,” CEO Matt Troup told NPR.

Separating religious beliefs from personal ones

The labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips headquartered in Atlanta has issued some guidelines as to how employers can discern between religious and personal beliefs.

“You should generally assume that an employee’s stated religious belief is sincerely held unless you have a good faith and objective basis for questioning the religious nature or the sincerity of the stated belief,” the firm said. “Some examples of when this question might be properly triggered is if the employee recently adopted this belief system in response to your vaccine mandate, or acquired a ‘religious certification’ from a ‘church’ they found online.”

Those “certifications” don’t have to come from just online churches. A pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, announced in August that he would write religious exemptions for church members whose employer required them to get a coronavirus vaccine, calling such mandates “despicable,” The Charlotte Observer reported.

Employment law attorney Sean Herrmann told the Observer such religious exemption forms “are very unlikely to work.”

Asking for supporting documents

Companies can ask employees for supporting documents if they claim a religious exemption.

According to the national law firm Venable LLP, that might include a statement that explains the tenets of their beliefs and how they follow them, written religious materials or statements from third-parties (such as a pastor) who have direct knowledge of the individual’s practicing habits.

The EEOC also has an example religious accommodation form that contains questions about an employee’s belief system and what accommodations they are seeking.

Just because an employer grants one worker’s request for religious accommodation, however, doesn’t mean they have to approve requests from all employees on the same grounds, the EEOC said.

As Venable said, each request is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.


In granting an employee’s request for a religious exemption, an employer is required to provide them with a “reasonable accommodation” as an alternative to getting a COVID-19 vaccine. That could mean submitting to regular coronavirus testing, agreeing to wear a face mask at work, getting reassigned, or — in some cases — being placed on temporary leave.

But under Title VII, an employer is only required to provide a reasonable accommodation if it doesn’t create what’s known as an “undue hardship.”

According to the EEOC, the Supreme Court has determined that the employer shouldn’t bear more than a minimal cost to provide an accommodation.

“Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, the religious accommodation would impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work,” the EEOC said.

Even if the employer grants an employee’s request for religious exemption, the EEOC said, they are under no obligation to provide the employee with their preferred accommodation.

“If more than one accommodation would be effective in eliminating the religious conflict, the employer should consider the employee’s preference but is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation preferred by the employee,” the agency said.

Some employers might give their workers a choice between multiple accommodations, according to Fisher Phillips. If they refuse all of them, the employer could be forced to place them on an unpaid leave of absence or otherwise “exclude them from the workplace.”

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