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As vaccine mandates rise, religious exemptions grow

Associated Press

About 3,000 Los Angeles Police Department employees are citing religious objections to try to get out of the required COVID-19 vaccination. In Washington state, thousands of state workers are seeking similar exemptions.

And an Arkansas hospital has been swamped with so many such requests from employees that it is apparently calling their bluff.

Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.

And it is only likely to grow following President Joe Biden’s sweeping new vaccine mandates covering more than 100 million Americans, including executive branch employees and workers at businesses with more than 100 people on the payroll.

The administration acknowledges that some small minority of Americans will use — and some may seek to exploit — religious exemptions. But it said it believes even marginal improvements in vaccination levels will save lives.

It’s not clear yet how many federal employees have requested a religious exemption. The Labor Department has said an accommodation can be denied if it causes an undue burden.

In the states, mask and vaccine requirements vary, but most offer exemptions for certain medical conditions or religious or philosophical objections. The use of such exemptions, particularly by parents on behalf of their schoolchildren, has been growing over the past decade.

The allowance was enshrined in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

A religious belief does not have to be recognized by an organized religion, and it can be new, unusual or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others,” according to rules laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But it can’t be founded solely on political or social ideas.

That puts employers in the position of determining what is a legitimate religious belief and what is a dodge.

Many major religious denominations have no objections to the COVID-19 vaccines. But the rollout has prompted heated debates because of the longtime role that cell lines derived from fetal tissue have played, directly or indirectly, in the research and development of various vaccines and medicines.

Roman Catholic leaders in New Orleans and St. Louis went so far to call Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 shot “morally compromised.” J&J has stressed that there is no fetal tissue in its vaccine.

Moreover, the Vatican’s doctrine office has said it is “morally acceptable” for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines that are based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses. Pope Francis himself has said it would be “suicide” not to get the shot, and he has been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer formula.

In New York, state lawmakers attempted to make the vaccine mandatory for medical workers, with no religious exemptions. On Tuesday, a federal judge blocked the rule because it lacked the opt-out.

An August AP-NORC poll found that 58% of white evangelical Protestants, 72% of white mainline Protestants, 80% of Catholics and 73% of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated say they have been vaccinated. Seventy percent of nonwhite Protestants say they have been, including 70% of Black Protestants.

Across the U.S., public officials, doctors and community leaders have been trying to help people circumvent COVID-19 mask and vaccine requirements.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, pastor Jackson Lahmeyer is offering a “religious exemption” form on his church’s website for download, along with links for suggested donations to the church. The 29-year-old is running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

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