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Why Your Employer Can Deny Your ‘Religious’ Vaccine Exemption

I care deeply about religious liberty. As an attorney, I spend much of my time helping religious organizations understand and maximize constitutional protections and religious exemptions. But my passion for religious liberty is exactly why I’m concerned about the wave of requests for so-called religious exemptions from employer vaccine mandates—requests that pastors around the country are being asked to write or approve.

To be clear: I’m not arguing Christians should be vaccinated, or that Christians should necessarily acquiesce to employer vaccine mandates. I’m only arguing Christians shouldn’t demand religious exemptions if they choose not to be vaccinated.

I’ve reviewed many of these vaccine exemption requests. Few, if any, plausibly assert that receiving the vaccine would violate the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs. Under current law, that’s enough for employers to turn them down.

I’m not arguing Christians should be vaccinated, or that Christians should necessarily acquiesce to employer vaccine mandates. I’m only arguing Christians shouldn’t demand religious exemptions if they choose not to be vaccinated.

But the long-term consequences for religious liberty are what I’m most worried about: that so many of these exemption requests seem mislabeled or disingenuous will invite courts—and the public—to place a tourniquet on religious exemptions generally (i.e., beyond the pandemic context). And this may come just as Christians are about to need exemptions most.

Religious Accommodations Law

Let’s start with the basics. In most jurisdictions, employers are legally permitted to require vaccination as a condition of employment (and many employers may soon be required to do so under the anticipated OSHA emergency standard). What employers may not do is discriminate on the basis of religion. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to accommodate workers whose sincerely held religious beliefs or practices conflict with workplace rules, so long as the accommodations don’t impose an undue hardship on the employer.

While a few employees might be entitled to religious exemptions from their employers’ vaccine policies, most of the real-life “religious” objections I’ve seen fall short of the standard. They’re either not religious or not sincerely held. These deficient exemption requests tend to fall into three categories of objections: personal autonomy, my body is a temple, or abortion complicity.

Let’s consider them one at a time.

Personal Autonomy

Many Christians are justifiably concerned about government overreach. They consider vaccination a personal choice and argue the government shouldn’t encourage or force employers to dictate this choice for workers. While I’m sympathetic to this view, it doesn’t provide the basis for a religious exemption.

The “personal autonomy” objection turns not on the assertion that being vaccinated violates one’s religious beliefs, but rather on the assertion that being required to be vaccinated violates one’s beliefs.

Understand this: A belief that something is a matter of conscience or personal choice—even if that belief is religiously informed—isn’t itself a sufficient basis for a religious exemption.

There’s a difference between an employee who says, “I’m unable to work Sundays because it’s my day of worship,” and another who says, “I object to working Sundays because I have a religious belief that what I do with my weekends is a matter of personal choice.”

If claims like the latter were adequate for religious exemptions, people could excuse themselves from nearly any rule—something no one thinks is sustainable.

My Body Is a Temple

I’ve seen 1 Corinthians 6:19 quoted in countless vaccine exemption requests. The argument seems to be that being injected with one of the available COVID vaccines—which are characterized as manifestly unsafe or, at best, risky experimental potions—would defile the Holy Spirit’s dwelling.

Setting aside the exegetical issues with this objection, it simply isn’t enough to merit a religious exemption under our existing legal framework. People seeking an exemption on this basis are declaring themselves unwilling to harm their bodies, but this concern for physical well-being—while certainly valid—is a concern shared by everyone, religious or not.

The concern for physical well-being—while certainly valid—is a concern shared by everyone, religious or not.

Courts have consistently rejected “religious” exemption requests premised on moral values common to all religions (not to mention nonreligious worldviews). That’s the case here: Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians is being invoked to put a religious spin on a ubiquitous concern for personal health. For those of us who aren’t Christian Scientists, this isn’t enough. Christians don’t receive exemptions just because they cite Bible verses for moral values everyone embraces, like a commitment to avoid harming one’s body.

Abortion Complicity

From my perspective, what I call the “abortion complicity” objection is perhaps the strongest case. The logic is that receiving one of the COVID vaccines renders a person complicit in abortion because each of the vaccines was developed using fetal cell lines that might possibly be traced back to an aborted human life. But while this objection is coherent and religious, it’s usually deployed too selectively to qualify as sincerely held.

It would be unreasonable for employers to expect people of faith to live by their religious beliefs with 100 percent consistency. Even so, too much inconsistent behavior justifies questioning whether a person’s stated beliefs are sincerely held. The challenge facing those making the abortion-complicity argument is that the relationship between tainted fetal cell lines and at least two of the available COVID vaccines is highly attenuated.

As it turns out, a large number of everyday products—including over-the-counter medicines, prescription drugs, and cosmetics—all have a similar attenuated relationship to these cell lines. When employees state abortion complicity objections to the COVID vaccines but have no qualms about using Tylenol, Claritin, or their favorite anti-aging skin cream, their employers are justified in withholding exemptions.

Religious-Liberty Consequences

There’s more at stake here than whether any particular “religious” exemption request is approved or denied (no doubt many employers are rubber-stamping these simply to avoid labor shortages). The real problem is that when Christians present contrived demands for religious exemptions, they risk jeopardizing the whole undertaking.

Treating religious exemptions like a wildcard to be played whenever we don’t like the rules cheapens the concept and encourages backlash. Indeed, courts are already rebuffing COVID-related religious-exemption requests, creating a harmful precedent that will be used against Christians in future cases.

Treating religious exemptions like a wildcard to be played whenever we don’t like the rules cheapens the concept and encourages backlash.

Meanwhile, gospel-minded Christians are about to face—and are already facing—an onslaught of legislative and judicial actions directly threatening their ability to evangelize, teach, discipline, counsel, and associate according to their cherished convictions. Why imperil the vitality of religious exemptions when they’re about to be needed most?

“But we must stop government intrusion now,” some will say. Maybe so. Yet asserting flimsy demands for religious vaccine exemptions will have the opposite effect. It’s a shortsighted strategy that will end up fueling government overreach, not curtailing it. It’s like mowing over the dandelions in your grass instead of digging them up at the roots.

If you loathe COVID vaccine mandates—as many do—then engage in public advocacy, use politics, and vote with your feet. But if you care deeply about religious liberty, please think twice before demanding a “religious” exemption.

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