Entering the new year can feel inspiring—visions, aspirations, and letting go of what’s no longer needed. While you may forgo making “resolutions,” for fear of not following through, if you or a member of your family have been mandated to receive a vaccine you don’t believe in, and do not wish to take, expanding your knowledge about creating a religious exemption may be an action worth considering in 2023.
By Janey Bibolet Ward
What Is the Religious Exemption?
The religious exemption (RE) is a legal privilege you can file to oppose a vaccination requirement that is mandated for employment, or to attend an educational institution. It is important to research the institution or entity that you are working for or applying to, as policies continue to change.
Addressing Privacy Concerns
Your RE is a legitimate document used by human resource (HR) departments or educational institutions, and kept in your private file. It is not published publicly, and should not be available to unauthorized persons to view. In some cases, managers and extended HR staff will have access to it.
Must You Be a Member of a Specific Religious Group?
A religious exemption must state your “sincerely held religious beliefs” to oppose a mandated vaccination. The First Amendment protects the exercise of freedom of religion, and the expression of your sincerely held beliefs. You do not need to be associated with an organized religious faith or organization (Torcaso v. Watkins, 1961).
How to File a Religious Exemption
A simple letter explaining your “sincerely held religious beliefs” should be a personal statement detailing how your religious observance goes against the vaccination requirement. Your religious exemption needs to be individualized, and should not be adapted from a template or form letter. In some cases, your employer or educational institution will have a questionnaire you’ll need to complete.
The Legal Precedent for Forced Vaccination: Jacobson v. Massachusetts and the Right To Refuse: 1905
The U.S. Supreme Court cites Jacobson v. Massachusetts as the precedent to allow the state to enact involuntary mass vaccination programs to protect public health. The ruling upheld the right of the government to infringe on personal liberty as protected by the constitution, specifically the 14th Amendment, if deemed necessary to protect public health.
The smallpox vaccine was the first of its kind to be mandated by a state government. A closer reading indicates that under this law, a citizen may still refuse and accept a monetary fine as punishment for refusal, thereby not explicitly legally allowing vaccination by force. This law is continually used in arguments to justify vaccine mandates, and does not address the various exemptions legally available. The exemptions are determined by each state.
Exemption Types: Personal Belief, Medical and Religious
- Personal Belief (PBE): philosophical objection to medical risk
- Medical (ME): physician determines risk of harm from vaccination
- Religious (RE): sincerely held religious beliefs
The History of Religious Exemptions and Personal Belief Exemptions (PBEs): 1910–1970s
Public health historian James Colgrove, author of “State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America,” credits Christian Scientists as the early advocates for religious exemptions as far back as 1910.
Early objection to mandatory vaccination was primarily based on what is known as the “contentious clause,” used in the UK to justify a refusal to comply with smallpox mandates.
The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 further stated it was illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, or religion. In 1966, New York Assemblymember, Alexander Chananau introduced a law to mandate vaccine requirements for children to attend school.
Following an outcry, the PBE and REs were added as amendments before this requirement was codified into law. In the 1970s, informed consent was introduced in legal challenges, and healthcare rights were merged with both religious and conscientious objection in cases that challenged vaccine mandates.
Current U.S. National Exemption Policies
The National Conferences of State Legislatures published data in May 2022 detailing exemption policies across the nation. State legislatures base their requirements on the standards set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). It is up to individual states to implement the requirements as law. Check your state for more information.
Definition of the Religious Exemption as Defined by the Federal Government With Regards To Mandated COVID-19 Vaccines: 2021
In December 2020, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) published the definition of religious exemption as stated in the Federal Register.
“Many large corporations must, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, offer exemptions to individuals with either a disability or “sincerely held” religious belief that prevents them from getting the vaccine.”
Domenique Camacho Moran, a labor attorney at New York-based law firm Farrell Fritz stated:
“It can be a personal, sincerely held religious belief which arises from the very nature of freedom of religion articulated in the First Amendment.”
Challenges to the Religious Exemption for COVID-19 Vaccines
A study, “An In-Depth Look at Religious Exemptions from COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates,” published October 2021 goes into great detail on the RE to this vaccine and the challenges/refutations against granting it.
The information in this document addresses REs from an employer’s perspective, and is helpful in understanding the important points to include when writing your RE letter.
Court Rulings Against Religious Exemptions
In October 2021, The Maine Supreme Court ruled against healthcare/frontline workers’ rights to file religious exemptions, as the state does not recognize REs, and upheld the state vaccine mandate for this group. This case is significant in that it ruled against a religious claim protected by the First Amendment. In the dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote:
“This case presents an important constitutional question, a serious error, and an irreparable injury. Where many other states have adopted religious exemptions, Maine has charted a different course. There, healthcare workers who have served on the front line of a pandemic for the last 18 months are now being fired and their practices shuttered. All for adhering to their constitutionally protected religious beliefs. Their plight is worthy of our attention. I would grant relief.”
Biden/OHSA Workplace Mandate Struck Down by the Supreme Court
In January 2022, the supreme court blocked President Biden’s vaccine mandate for workplaces with 100 or more workers. CNBC reports:
“Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion. “Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category,” the court wrote.
Religious Guidance: The Vatican Relaxes Vaccine and Mask Mandates
The Vatican reversed course on previous guidance encouraging their followers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as an “act of love,” and adhere to masking rules. In June 2022, they eased the “Green Pass,” and no longer require proof of vaccine, or wearing a mask on church properties. This provides guidance to the greater Catholic community worldwide.
California Mandates the COVID-19 Vaccine for School Entry: Is the Religious Exemption Allowed?
In October 2021, CA Governor, Gavin Newsom announced he would instruct the CA Department of Public Health (CDPH) to enact the nation’s first COVID-19 mandate for school entry at a later date, adding the series to the established list of required vaccines for school entry. It was set to go into effect after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for children and adolescents, likely June 2022.
However, in April 2022, California Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly, suspended the mandate to allow the state more time to strategize how to implement it throughout the state’s many school districts.
Senator Richard Pan (2014–2022) authored SB 871. His bill would have done the following: Added COVID-19 to the list of diseases children would have to be vaccinated for to be admitted to school, with only a medical exemption allowed.
As of date of this publication, families/students may file a PBE if they are opposed to the COVID-19 mandate for this particular requirement, although it does not apply to any other required vaccine.
Will Filing a Religious Exemption Be Used Against You?
The U.S. Constitution “prevents the government from prohibiting the free exercise of individual religious beliefs.” The religious exemption is the best tool of law to challenge mandatory vaccination requirements in the workplace.
If you are granted a religious exemption, you may be forced to take “reasonable accommodations” which may include masking, working from home, and testing etc. The RE could be used to track those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine mandates in proposed new national and state databases. AVFCA will monitor developments and requirements as they evolve.
What the Future Holds: G-20 Leaders and Promoting the Global Vaccine Passport
A joint declaration issued by the Group of Twenty (G20—premier forum for economic international cooperation) in November 2022 is headed toward a digitized global health passport, including vaccination status. It reads:
“We acknowledge the importance of shared technical standards and verification methods, under the framework of the IHR (2005), to facilitate seamless international travel, interoperability, and recognizing digital solutions and non-digital solutions, including proof of vaccinations.”
Utilize Your Religious Exemption Without Regret
It is important to utilize the legal tools available to you without trepidation. It’s within your rights to refuse medical interventions that you oppose for your family and yourself. Childhood vaccines required for school entry vary by state, and can be stringent, but do not let that stop you from moving forward.
Feeling overwhelmed about the exemption may be the worst of it, and a signal to come back to the present moment to focus on taking one clear action step. Strength in numbers is a galvanizing force for political and systemic change, and choosing to implement a religious exemption can be a useful tool to protect your medical freedom.
A Voice For Choice Advocacy can help you take the next step to create your sincerely held religious belief exemption with their self-paced Religious Exemption Writing Workshop. Empower yourself with knowledge, and know you have the right to choose.
If you’d like to contact A Voice For Choice Advocacy, please email email@example.com.