The religious exemption card is getting harder to play

In the US, claiming that some action is based on their religious faith tends to give people wide latitude. So it is not surprising that people reach for it even in situations where it is hard to discern any religious basis. We see this now as states and companies are issuing vaccine mandates requiring that their employees get vaccinated or conform to various kinds of other requirements such as regular testing or get fired.

But people who are trying to use religious exemptions to get out of vaccine mandates are not finding it as much of an easy sell as they might have expected. We saw how basketball player Andrew Wiggins had his request for such an exemption denied and now the head football coach along with four of his coaching staff of Washington State University were fired for not getting vaccinated as required for all state employees.

Mr Rolovich, 42, who earned $3.1m (£2.25m) a year, had applied for a religious exemption from the mandate.

But WSU’s Director of Athletics, Pat Chun, said the exemption had been refused.

“This is a disheartening day for our football programme,” Mr Chun said.

“Our priority has been and will continue to be the health and wellbeing of the young men in our team.”

Mr Rolovich’s sacking marks the culmination of a three-month showdown between the coach and Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee.

In August, Gov Inslee announced that all state employees and healthcare workers would need two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to keep their jobs. Monday was the deadline for them to get vaccinated, or have a medical or religious exemption.

It used to be the case that just appealing to their faith was enough to give them license but in the case of vaccinations more is being demanded. This has created a cottage industry devoted to manufacturing reasons and of course the grifters have stepped in.

That’s likely because in many cases, vaccine hesitancy is the real issue, and the religious exemption is simply a convenient loophole through which to dodge externally imposed vaccine requirements. Medical exemptions can be hard to come by—they require a documented diagnosis of one of the very few conditions that prevents someone from getting vaccinated. Religious exemptions are easier: They rarely require proof that an employee belongs to an organized religious group that opposes vaccines. (Few faiths do.) Rather, the onus of explaining the religious beliefs is left to the individual—and the employer must then decide whether the belief they describe is sincere, explained Poonam Lakhani, an employment attorney with the Prinz Law Firm in Chicago. “That’s a really difficult line for the employer to walk.”

As more employers adopt vaccine mandates, a growing number of vaccine-hesitant workers are trying to figure out how to use religious exemptions to keep their jobs without getting the jab. Many are taking to online Facebook groups to strategize around how best to persuade their bosses. Their conversations, which I have observed over the last few weeks, reveal a grassroots online movement gaining traction. Every day, I watched the groups grow, from hundreds to thousands of members, as exemption seekers all over the country organized, collaborated, and shared resources. The groups have an overall Christian flavor—members often quote scripture and urge each other to consult with pastors. But not all the conversation revolves around religion—there is also a strong anti-government strain. Members talk about their “medical freedom” and they rail against “tyranny.” While some of the members seem earnest in their religious objections to the vaccines, others skirt the line of opportunism.

In multiple posts, members debated the merits of citing in their religious exemption requests vaccine researchers’ use of cell lines from aborted fetuses. “Only one of the (beep) have fetal cell lines so was advised not to use,” observed one commenter. Instead, the commenter recommended, “Find verses of the Bible that talk about our body being the temple of God.” Another commenter disagreed: “I used the fetal cell line government documents that state they are used in the testing, production of the jabs plus my Bible verses to reinforce my beliefs, and mine was approved.”

Some pastors have said they are willing to sign religious exemption requests for free, while a cottage industry of “consultants” will offer their expert advice for a fee. Several members recommend The Healthy American, where seekers of religious exemptions can select from three tiers of consulting services. For a mere $175, the top-of-the-line “concierge packet” promises customers “exact step-by-step instructions for what to do” and a buffet of options for letters signed by a pastor.

Since the pope and religious leaders have weighed in that their is no religious reason to not take the vaccine, more people are now being asked to connect the dots between their refusal and their religion and to show consistency in their anti-vaccination reasoning.

A hospital system in Arkansas is making it a bit more difficult for staff to receive a religious exemption from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The hospital is now requiring staff to also swear off extremely common medicines, such as Tylenol, Tums, and even Preparation H, to get the exemption.

The move was prompted when Conway Regional Health System noted an unusual uptick in vaccine exemption requests that cited the use of fetal cell lines in the development and testing of the vaccines.

“This was significantly disproportionate to what we’ve seen with the influenza vaccine,” Matt Troup, president and CEO of Conway Regional Health System, told Becker’s Hospital Review in an interview Wednesday.

“Thus,” Troup went on, “we provided a religious attestation form for those individuals requesting a religious exemption,” he said. The form includes a list of 30 commonly used medicines that “fall into the same category as the COVID-19 vaccine in their use of fetal cell lines,” Conway Regional said.

The list includes Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, aspirin, Tums, Lipitor, Senokot, Motrin, ibuprofen, Maalox, Ex-Lax, Benadryl, Sudafed, albuterol, Preparation H, MMR vaccine, Claritin, Zoloft, Prilosec OTC, and azithromycin.

The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah had an excellent segment on how the idea of religious freedom has become corrupted over time to become just an excuse to avoid following the rules.


  1. John Morales says

    Clearly, the basic problem is the privileging of specifically religious objection over other forms of conscientious objection.

    Yet another way in which religion is pernicious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *