Commentary: Be wary of religious objections to vaccines

A syringe containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Jewish Federation/JARC's offices in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on May 13, 2021. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Michael Felsen Progressive Perspectives (TNS)

After the deaths of more than 737,000 U.S. citizens — and counting — we all know too well that COVID-19 kills. We also know that it’s spread in workplaces, and that vaccines are the single most important means to control it, there and everywhere else.

This is why it is a very good thing when employers require their workers to get the jab. It’s good for the workers, their co-workers, their families and communities.

With the goal of making thousands of workplaces safer, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will soon issue an emergency temporary standard. It’s expected to mandate that employers with more than 100 workers require that they either be vaccinated or undergo at least weekly testing. Many employers are already requiring their workers to get vaccinated. That’s a good thing, too.

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Not everyone agrees. Resistance to getting vaccinated takes many forms, yet only a few are recognized as legally valid reasons for workers to avoid the needle. One is a disability that could be worsened by the vaccine. Another is religious belief.

Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) bars employers from discriminating against workers on religious grounds. The law’s protections are expansive. They safeguard traditional religious beliefs as well as new or “uncommon” beliefs, including ones that “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” Political beliefs and “mere personal preferences,” however, don’t qualify.

Under the law, employers must reasonably accommodate a worker’s “sincerely held” belief, so long as the accommodation doesn’t cause an “undue hardship.”

Recently, a number of employees at Conway Regional Health System in Arkansas sought a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate because they objected to the use of fetal cells, decades earlier, in its development. (There are no such cells in the actual vaccine.) Conway, in response, asked whether these employees also avoid a long list of common medicines — including Tylenol, Motrin, Tums and Ex-Lax — initially developed using fetal cells. The company granted a testing accommodation on a provisional basis, but its point was made.

Other workers won’t get vaccinated because they claim the vaccine is “the Mark of the Beast” — a sign of the End Times and allegiance to the Antichrist. This assertion has been weaponized by political figures including Republican National Committee official Peter Feaman, but it’s hardly a consensus belief in the evangelical community.

While many pastors have written exemption letters on behalf of workers, others strongly disapprove. Megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent evangelical supporter of Trump administration policies, recently declared that “[t]here is no credible religious argument against the vaccines.” Curtis Chang, founder of the website Christians and the Vaccine, agrees: “The consensus of mainstream Christian leaders — from Pope Francis to Franklin Graham — is that vaccination is consistent with biblical Christian faith.”

Leaders of faiths from Greek Orthodox to Muslim to Orthodox Jewish have either issued policy statements against religious exemptions, or have encouraged their followers to get the shot. A recent Pew Research Center study found that only 5% of worshippers said their religious leaders discouraged them from getting vaccinated.

Yes, employers should, as a general rule, accommodate workers’ sincerely held religious beliefs. But when those beliefs, whether mainstream or “uncommon,” put co-workers at greater risk of illness and even death, it’s right to call that an “undue hardship” and draw a line.

Employers who mandate vaccines and implement other workplace exposure-mitigation measures — like improved ventilation and masking — are laudably heeding their legal duty to protect their employees from harm. Religious objections shouldn’t be allowed to obstruct that solemn obligation.

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(Michael Felsen of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, retired in 2018 after a 39-year career as an attorney with the Department of Labor, serving from 2010-2018 as its New England Regional Solicitor. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.)
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