A test of religious sincerity?
Following a growing wave of requests for religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates, some employers are questioning the sincerity and basis of their employees’ beliefs.
Last week, a Roman Catholic doctor and a Buddhist student at the University of Colorado medical school filed a federal claim trial challenging the constitutionality of the school’s policy for religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine. The policy limits these exemptions to employees who belong to religions whose teachings oppose all vaccinations.
The two challengers, who are both suing under pseudonyms for fear of reprisal, have different religious objections to the three U.S. COVID-19 vaccines. The Catholic doctor opposes it because she believes that receiving a vaccine that relies on strains of fetal cells derived from aborted fetal tissue, or a vaccine tested with such cells, would violate her deeply held religious beliefs that abortion is a serious sin. The other is a first year medical student who believes that under the “five precepts” of Buddhism, he should avoid products associated with the abuse of animals or humans, including aborted children.
According to the complaint, the policies of the medical school violate the guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection of the United States Constitution by downplaying personal religious beliefs. School officials asked the provocative doctor about whether she had taken any other vaccines and, if so, why she had not objected. They also questioned the sincerity of the challenger student and told him, “The Dharma Realm Buddhist University established by Dharma Master Xuan Hua whom you list in your letter actually requires vaccinations for all of its students. , its teachers and its staff “.
Tying a personal religious belief to the stated beliefs of an organized religion could be problematic, said Thomas Berg, a law professor at St. Thomas University’s Law School in Minneapolis. Berg noted that courts have viewed the relevant religious belief in such cases as that of the individual, not the group to which he belongs.
Still, Berg warned that the school may have legal grounds to limit religious exemptions to those who oppose all vaccines, not just COVID-19 vaccines. “During the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court allowed the government to limit project exemptions to people opposed to all wars, on the grounds that moral objections to a particular war were too difficult to distinguish from political or political objections, a concern that no doubt applies here. too, ”he said.
Berg said employers are grappling with the unusually high number of religious objections – many of which might not be sincere – due to the prevalence of standard objection forms available online. “If they cannot filter the insincere allegations, it will strengthen the momentum to deny all religious exemptions,” he said. Despite legal challenges, the situation may ultimately lead judges to restrict the scope of authorized religious exemptions.
This concern may have surfaced in a recent case in which some parents in Pennsylvania challenged a school mask warrant. After considering the parents’ objections, a federal judge ruled that none of the four parents, whose children attend a school district outside of Philadelphia, demonstrated a “sincere religious belief” because none of their beliefs appeared to be part of a “global belief system”.
Whether the judge made the right choice or not, the problem of sincere and insincere religious objections is one that employers and the courts will grapple with in the months to come. As Berg concludes, the real losers in such a fight may be those who truly have a sincere religious objection to a vaccine.