What to know about religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine – IndyStar

As more and more workplaces and colleges require employees and students to be vaccinated, some Hoosiers are responding with an increasingly familiar refrain: It’s against my religion.

Ivy Tech Community College, for example, has received roughly 230 requests for religious exemptions since mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for certain students. 

Employers in the area, such as Indiana University Health, Marion County Health Department, and Eli Lilly and Co. have also enforced vaccine mandates effective as soon as mid-September and as late as mid-November. For some of these businesses, religious and medical exemptions will be granted on an individual basis.  

Even so, opinions and regulations about religious exemptions vary widely. Here are a few things to know about the religious exemptions on vaccines. 

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What is the religious concern?

People who assert the vaccine places a burden on their beliefs often cite how fetal cell lines developed from aborted cells harvested decades ago were used in the testing of the mRNA vaccines and production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Some faith leaders — for myriad reasons — have decried vaccine mandates.

The Freedom Church in Charlotte, N.C. declared in a statement, “It is despicable for a business or government agency to force someone to take a vaccine that is unproven, dangerous and not fully tested.”  

The religious reason for vaccination

Many prominent religious leaders have emphasized their full support toward vaccines and modern science. Pope Francis described getting vaccinated as “an act of love.” In Indianapolis, the Archdiocese has declined to assist parishioners in obtaining religious exemptions from the vaccine.  

Other church leaders across the country are preaching the importance of getting vaccinated to protect and save lives. Former evangelical pastor Curtis Chang, co-founder of the organization Christians and the Vaccine, told USA Today that the group is trying to “persuade Christians, especially evangelical Christians, to think about the vaccine from a biblical perspective of being faithful to Jesus.”  

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Religious exemptions are not obligated

Religious and medical exemptions might provide some people with accommodations to the vaccine mandates, but they are not guaranteed to work. There is no law that requires employers or institutions to grant blanket exemptions. 

At Ivy Tech, for example, out of the 234 requests for religious exemptions for the vaccine, almost 30 students were denied an exemption.

Failure to get vaccinated might even hurt employees’ paychecks. United Airlines announced on Wednesday that employees who were denied religious and medical exemptions had five more weeks to get the shot before facing termination or unpaid leave.  

Legal experts agree that in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, institutions and employers can consider religious exemption requests but are not obligated to, especially when unvaccinated students and workers pose a safety risk.

Rick Garnett, a law professor and Director of the Notre Dame Program on Church, State & Society, noted that neither public nor private institutions of higher education would be obligated to offer religious exemptions amid a general vaccine mandate, especially during a public health crisis. “I suspect that courts would be strongly inclined to hold that such mandates are necessary to advance a compelling public interest,” Garnett said. 

OK, but what about Title VII?

Garnett and Daniel Conkle, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, both cite Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forces employers to give religious accommodations to employees.

“But,” Conkle explained, “the law also says that the employer has to reasonably accommodate if it can do so without undue hardship to the employer’s business.” 

In these cases where employees may seek religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, Conkle notes Title VII would not be a valid defense. “The employer would respond, ‘No, because if we accommodate you, that will come at the expense of exposing our workplace to significant health risk from the spread of COVID-19.

“And my sense is courts would probably agree with the employer in those settings.” 

Email IndyStar reporter Charles Xu at cxu@gannett.com.

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