November 19, 2021
Not taking it: the hows and whys of religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement
Matt Benoit

The decision whether to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is simple for some but soul-searching for others. State employers and workers are among those who have been adapting over the past month to accommodating exemptions in classrooms, health care facilities and elsewhere. (Rodin’s “The Thinker” at Musée Rodin in Paris, Andrew Horne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

November 19, 2021
Not taking it: the hows and whys of religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement
Matt Benoit

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Gov. Jay Inslee set an Oct. 18 deadline for receiving either a COVID-19 vaccine or an approved exemption as a condition of state-based employment. A month later, employers and employees have continued to adapt. 

The exemptions, granted based on either legitimate medical or sincerely held religious reasons, have, for a wide variety of reasons, allowed people to continue working without the protection of the vaccines, of which more than 10 million doses have been given in Washington state as of Nov. 8. 

While receiving a medical exemption is fairly straightforward, religious exemptions are less so, often predicated on a person demonstrating a sincere religious belief, regardless of whether that belief is supported by a church’s leaders and governing bodies.

The legal authority of the state to impose public health rules, of course, isn’t in question.

The 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts established precedent for allowing states to enact compulsory vaccination laws. The nation’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also confirmed the legal rights of companies, under federal law, to require their employees be vaccinated before entering the workplace, with exceptions including pregnancy, health issues and religious beliefs.

When it comes to that last basis, Supreme Court cases over conscientious-objector status in the military have helped refine legal precedent over the recognition of a religious belief. During several cases in the 1960s and 1970s, the court ruled that individuals could be denied an exemption only if their beliefs were not deeply held or not actually religious in practice. 

Spotlight on the classroom 

Regarding vaccination rates, K through 12 educators have been among the most scrutinized groups of state employees. 

More than 90% of Washington’s classroom-based employees — more than 84,000 people — are fully vaccinated, according to vaccination data from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). 

Once-empty classrooms are full again, as students, teachers and staff have returned — most vaccinated, and some exempted on medical or religious grounds. Above, a Shuksan Middle School classroom in Bellingham awaits the resumption of classes at the end of summer break. (Courtesy photo)

While over 500 classroom employees received medical exemptions, more than 8,000 were granted religious ones, OSPI data shows. Just 188 did not receive either a vaccine or an exemption, leading to their termination. 

As to what constitutes a religious belief, OSPI published a three-page document — developed in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office — to offer school districts guidance on evaluating religious accommodations. 

The document notes that the broad definition of a religious belief includes mainstream religious views as well as those that are “new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, or only held by a small number of people.”

Moral and ethical beliefs about right and wrong, “sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views,” may also meet the definition.

Social, political, economic or personal preferences, however, don’t quality, according to the document. 

In Whatcom County, the Bellingham School District approved religious exemptions for about 3% of its employees after closely following OSPI guidelines, said Dana Smith, the district’s communications manager. These exemptions were granted only after individual meetings with each person requesting the exemption, she added. 

Before those meetings, however, interested employees filled out the district’s religious accommodation request form. Salish Current was provided a copy of this form, which contains five questions — including one which asks if a person’s religious belief leads them to object to all medical treatment, all vaccinations or only the COVID-19 vaccination. 

The form also asks respondents to explain how their belief conflicts with the COVID-19 vaccination. 

Smaller districts, larger percentage of religiously exempt

In smaller Whatcom County communities, OSPI data shows larger percentages of religiously exempt employees. 

In the Lynden School District, about 18% of the district’s 485 employees received a religious exemption. The Nooksack Valley School District granted those exemptions to 15% of total employees, while the Mount Baker School District saw a 12% exemption rate. This was followed by the Ferndale School District at 11%, Meridian at 9% and Blaine at 8%. 

Because the mandate also applies to private schools with K through 12 grade levels, Salish Current reached out to Lynden Christian School District Superintendent Paul Bootsma about exemption data. Bootsma declined to comment. 

In-person learning was suspended in Lynden Christian schools on Sept. 29 for about two weeks due to failure to reach COVID-19 compliance rates with the Whatcom County Health Department. In a press release, the department noted multiple cases or exposure of COVID-19 in nearly every grade and classroom in the district, meeting the department’s operating definition of a school outbreak. 

The number of school district employees in Whatcom County terminated for not complying with the vaccine mandate or receiving an exemption was relatively small. Two or fewer employees failed to meet the mandate in five of Whatcom County’s seven public school districts; the Bellingham School District terminated five employees, while the Mount Baker School District terminated 13, according to OSPI data. 

Unvaccinated in the field of health care 

No industry has garnered more controversy over vaccine mandates more than healthcare, the epicenter of treating those with COVID-19. 

Locally, two Whatcom County candidates who ran for county council this year — Kamal Bhachu and write-in candidate Nancy Hill — were critical of the mandates, all the while risking the termination of their own jobs at PeaceHealth. 

While the number of vaccinated people continues to grow in Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties, some workers have opted to apply for religious or medical exemptions. Employers have responded with workplace accommodations in some cases, and with forced leaves of absence in others. Above, a volunteer prepares for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Lynden, at a site similar to others where more than 250,000 people in the three counties have received the vaccines since early this year. (Courtesy photo Whatcom County Health Department)

In all, 110 of Whatcom County’s 3,290 PeaceHealth employees received approved religious exemptions, according to Beverly Mayhew, senior director of marketing and communications for PeaceHealth Northwest. In Skagit County, just 13 PeaceHealth employees received the exemptions, with two granted in San Juan County, said Anne Williams, PeaceHealth communications specialist. 

In all cases, employees seeking exemptions were asked to submit a written request that was reviewed on a case-by-case basis. 

Receiving an exemption, however, didn’t allow PeaceHealth employees back to their jobs. Those with religious exemptions are now on forced leaves of absence, said Mayhew. So while they still have a job to return to eventually, they currently must find another way to make money in the meantime. 

That’s not the case at Skagit Valley Hospital, where employees with religious exemptions can continue working by following a set of stringent guidelines.  

Dr. Joshua Griggs, Chief Quality Officer for Skagit Regional Health, said in an email that exempt employees must be tested weekly for COVID-19, in addition to wearing eye protection (such as goggles or face shields) in addition to their masks. They must also complete COVID-19 computer-based learning courses, and meet once a year with either an infectious disease specialist or Skagit Regional’s chief medical officer. 

The exemption review process itself was thoughtfully conducted, he said. “Skagit Regional Health established a team that reviewed blinded individual exemption requests to ensure a fair process and to maintain the privacy of our employees.”

Accommodating the religious-exempt at work

One employee of Skagit Valley Hospital, who works in a receptionist-type job, said the accommodations seem to be so far, so good. 

The worker spoke to Salish Current on condition of anonymity due to fear of recrimination for speaking publicly on her exemption. She was one of about 10% of Skagit Regional Health employees to be either partially vaccinated or to have an approved exemption.

The worker said the exemption process was conducted via email, and employees had one week to respond upon receiving an exemption application. Employees received responses to their applications no later than Oct. 4, providing enough time for anyone who either had been denied an exemption or changed their mind the opportunity to be vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline. 

The worker said about half of the 15 or so people in her department received an exemption and didn’t know anybody denied a religious exemption, although one employee was asked to amend their statement in order to prove sincerity. 

Her vaccinated co-workers didn’t seem to have an issue with her unvaccinated status and were cordial, going so far as to show solidarity by also donning face shields during the first week of accommodation requirements, she said. 

In the application for exemption, the employee wrote a generic one-page response taking text from sample outlines found on the internet and included a few religious scriptures. The application did not include mention of any specific religion, church affiliation or deity. 

The employee has not received any vaccinations in the last 20 years, is simply against putting unnecessary things into her body as part of her spiritual relationship with God. 

For her, the accommodations are a fair trade-off in maintaining her choice to remain unvaccinated.

“I’m not doing anything more than I was doing before, other than basically being tested every week and taking an online, educational course,” she said. “To me, that should be done for everybody. I’m not upset about it at all, in any way.”

As for the online courses, the woman said they consist of informational videos followed by instructions to checkmark boxes if they agree with the information presented. Much of the information about the virus and vaccines is basic, such as COVID-19 being highly contagious, she said, while adding that she did not fully agree with all the information presented. 

Personal convictions and a matter of faith

Local pastors can also play a role in religious exemptions, though not in an official, determining capacity. 

Bellingham’s Geoff Mumley, an Assemblies of God pastor with University Christian Ministries and a staff member of Western Washington University’s Campus Christian Fellowship, said that church leadership in his Pentecostal Protestant denomination has given instruction on what pastors should do if parishioners seek their counsel on whether they can or should seek an exemption. 

“The guidance we have been given is to encourage folks to really figure out if their hesitancy about the vaccine qualifies as a religious exemption, and then leave the application process up to them after that,” said Mumley, who hasn’t personally counseled any congregants on the vaccine so far. 

Helping someone determine whether they hold a sincere religious belief about the vaccine includes informing them about the church’s position. Assemblies of God doesn’t have an official opposition to medical treatment in general or the COVID-19 vaccine specifically, Mumley said. In fact, some churches have even served as vaccination sites. 

Despite this, some church members may still believe themselves to be religiously exempt, and that is where Mumley said a pastor would ask someone to think carefully and honestly. Are they opposed to all medical treatment? What about other vaccines? What specifically about the COVID-19 vaccine do they object to, and are those objections truly religious in nature? 

Ultimately, Mumley said a pastor will not try to push someone in either direction, respecting their personal convictions and letting them make their own decision. 

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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