Who qualifies for a ‘religious exemption’ from the COVID-19 vaccine?

OLYMPIA, Wash. – One day after Washington Governor Jay Inslee expanded requirements for state employees who need to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the state says it’s still working through the process for employees who cite a religious exemption.

State employees, teachers, school staff and volunteers, long-term care workers and others need to show proof of full vaccination by October 18th or risk losing employment. The state does allow religious and medical exemptions, but those exemptions have not yet been clearly defined.

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When KAPP-KVEW sister station 4 News Now asked the governor’s office about it Thursday, a spokesman for Governor Inslee said, “Accommodations for persons who have sincerely held religious beliefs will be considered, but the process is still under development.”

Press Secretary Mike Faulk pointed to this document that outlines the laws applicable in previous vaccination requirements. It says, in part, that employees aren’t required to get vaccinated if they are entitled under the Americans With Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Washington Law Against Discrimination “or any other applicable law to a disability-related reasonable accommodation or a sincerely held religious belief accommodation.”

It goes on to say, “Agencies must document that the request for an accommodation has been made and the document must include a statement regarding the way in which the requirements
of this order conflict with the religious observance, practice, or belief of the individual.”

There are some agencies who have already required the vaccines with the same provisions for exemptions. Pacific Lutheran University, for example, has a form online that outlines the requirements. This document shows a form where the employee would write a statement about how their religious beliefs prevent them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

The University of Washington also has a religious exemption  mentioned on its COVID-19 vaccine page. It says that details on the exemptions would be provided in mid-August.

There is some precedent for vaccine exemptions in Washington. Kids attending public schools have to be vaccinated against the measles and are only exempt for medical or religious reasons. Parents or guardians have to fill out a form that includes a declaration from parents that they understand the risk. The form also has to be signed by a health care practitioner, verifying that they discussed the risk with the guardian.

Under the religious exemption, parents/guardians are told only to sign if they belong to a church or religion that objects to the use of medical treatment and includes the line, “I affirm I am a member of a church or religion whose teaching does not allow health care practitioners to give medical treatment for my child.”

Faith leaders across the country and around the world have spoken out, encouraging people to get the vaccine. In Washington, two Jesuit priests from Spokane made a public service announcement, affirming that science and religion are not in conflict. The Vatican has also come out in support of vaccines.

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Leaders of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints  publicly support the vaccine as well. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also not opposed to vaccines but believe in personal choice.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has a document on religions that object to vaccinations. It lists those objecting for theological reasons as: Dutch Reformed Congregations, faith healing denominations and Church of Christ, Scientist (though that church has no strict rules against vaccinations).

Those requesting religious exemptions, though, don’t need to cite that they’re part of an organized religion that objects. An article posted by the Harvard Law School says “two major problems with granting religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are that they are very hard to police, and they are very routinely gamed.”

The article says that states cannot refuse an exemption to those “whose interpretation differs from their religion’s doctrine regarding vaccination.”

The author says that “dedicated anti-vaccine activists are exploiting these ambiguities to help people get religious exemptions.”

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