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Religious exemptions complicate vaccine mandates

DanielWolcott-1a

Daniel Wolcott is president of Adventist Health Kern County Care Delivery, which represents three hospitals in Bakersfield, Delano and Tehachapi Valley.

Thorny workplace issues are arising as employees around Kern County pursue religious-based exemptions to vaccine mandates.

Push is increasingly becoming shove as the California Department of Public Health prepares to require that all health-care workers in the state be fully vaccinated by Thursday. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is developing a rule insisting businesses with 100 or more employees make sure that all are vaccinated or undergoing weekly testing.

Two possible waivers allow individuals to skirt mandates: a medical exemption or a religious one. Businesses must avoid discrimination while also protecting clients and other workers.

“It is a complex process,” said Jay Rosenlieb, a partner with Klein DeNatale Goldner's employment law group.

ORIGINS

Religious exemption stems from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, Rosenlieb said. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination, created several protected characteristics. Religion is one category.

Employers look at two elements when considering a religious waiver: The worker’s beliefs must be “sincerely held,” and an employer must make “reasonable accommodations” that do not “pose undue hardship” upon the business for that employee, according to the Civil Rights Act.

First, an employer must ascertain the extent to which an employee harbors sincere religious beliefs, said Barbara Holland, an advisor in the knowledge center at the Society for Human Resource Management.

An employer can ask for a letter signed by a religious leader from the employee, or talk with a knowledgeable supervisor about the worker’s true convictions, Holland said. Human resources personnel may engage in an interactive process and ask employees about their stances, she added.

“It could also be a very strong belief morally or ethically about the medical intervention,” Holland said. “Political (beliefs) or just ‘I don’t trust the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)’ — that would not fall under a religious exemption.”

Daniel Wolcott, local president of faith-based hospital owner Adventist Health, said his employees asserting a religious-based exemption to the vaccine mandate must fill out a questionnaire explaining their position and its relation to vaccinations in order to qualify for an exemption within the company. The reasoning behind seeking the exemption should be connected to receiving the shot, he added.

If employees provide their personal thoughts about their faith, Wolcott said, Adventist's bias is to believe them. The hospital has hosted open forums to clarify any ambiguity, he added.

Wolcott encourages vaccination for all health-care workers but does not pass judgment on individuals’ beliefs.

“We want to create an environment where people feel embraced and feel like there's compassion and openness,” Wolcott added.

SAFE CONDITIONS

Even if the exemption is granted, another issue arises, said Robin Paggi, training and development specialist with Worklogic HR. The employer must safely create working conditions whereby an unvaccinated employee does not pose a hardship on others, she said.

If this proves unfeasible, the employee is let go, Paggi said. She added the whole process must be carefully documented by the employer.

An undue hardship upon the workplace can be determined by the cost to the organization, Holland said.

Employers might need to change their operations or alter workplace responsibilities to accommodate the employee with an exemption, which can affect the worker’s employment status, Holland added.

For example, if a nurse cannot safely interact with patients, other medical personnel might have to take more patients under their care. If these other employees become overworked, that could lead to mistakes that could pose hazardous working conditions, she said.

Karl Gerber, the founder of the employment lawyers group, said he foresees problems in this very situation. A hospital cannot always accommodate telework, and other employees could decline to work with unvaccinated staff members. A workplace is liable for workers compensation lawsuits if an employee becomes infected with COVID-19, he said.

“I represent employees,” Gerber said. “​​And, I see this being something an employer can say.”

This situation should be examined on a case-by-case basis: Each worker could have different accommodations that have been made, Holland said.

At Adventist, HR personnel assess the situation of each individual requesting an exemption before making a decision, Wolcott said.

“There also has to be an assessment on the impact on the department where that person may be serving,” he added.

Wolcott said there are “very few places” where the accommodation cannot be made and “nearly” everyone’s needs will be met.

RELIGIOUS DIVIDE

Local religious leaders are divided when it comes to issuing religious exemptions.

RiverLakes Community Church Pastor Angelo Frazier said he has talked with about 10 people seeking his guidance on the mandate. He recognizes the importance of taking the shot but said he does not believe the vaccine mandate is the correct way to persuade many to become inoculated.

“I should be able to choose like what goes into my body,” Frazier said.

His church offers a form for prospective applicants to file for an exemption. The form states under 1 Corinthians 8:12 and Romans 14:23, the religious exemption should be granted. The paperwork may be adapted to include an individual’s specific religious convictions.

The application concludes by saying the RiverLakes Community Church is not anti-vaccination. Regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, the congregation is “against people being forced to act contrary to their conscience, which is violation of clear Biblical teaching.”

Frazier said he distinguishes true believers from nonbelievers by examining their reasons behind seeking a religious exemption. When a person cites falsehoods regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, Frazier understands they do not harbor true convictions. Those who are “humble, contrite,” have true convictions, he said.

He said his church passed out a “handful” of forms and 10 people have asked him directly for a form. Frazier said he has turned away some community members who have reached out to him about an exemption, and he tells them to go ask their own church for a form. Frazier said he has not signed any religious exemption forms.

DIFFERING VIEWS

Senior Pastor Mike Osthimer with Calvary Chapel Bakersfield said he signed a “few dozen letters.” For him, his process involves figuring out applicants' relationship with God. He recalled rejecting an individual’s request for a letter because “they had no personal relationship with God.”

Osthimer said he is vaccinated but believes in the “individual('s) right to receive or decline medical care.”

He admits that he cannot fully know if a person is sincere, but hopes to help people make prayerful and biblical decisions “in every area of their lives.”

Pastor Elizabeth Steele at the First Congregational Church said she cannot think of a verse or hymn that explains declining a vaccination.

Steele believes Christians must take care of one another and encourages everyone to vaccinate, wear a mask and socially distance to protect the larger community, she said. She has not signed a religious exemption form, she added, and cannot foresee anyone in her church asking for one.

Judaism centers around communitarian values, said Jonathan Klein, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El. Jewish law, and Israelis in general, considers practicing public health an absolute obligation.

Within that doctrine, Klein said, no religious exemption would exist when the main goal centers around the community's health. Klein said he has not signed any waivers claiming an exemption.

Gurinder Singh Basra, the secretary with the Guru Angad Darbar, said no prayer within Sikhism explains religious exemption. His temple has hosted multiple vaccination clinics, which resulted in droves seeking the jab, he said. He has not heard about anyone requesting an exemption waiver when interacting with large swaths of the Sikh community, he added.